The Mitzvah of Being Happy

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Rabbi Maurice, September/October 2010

This time of year when the High Holy Days return, Judaism prods us to engage in an all-systems self-assessment. The theme of teshuvah (repentance, or return to living in harmony with the Divine) dominates. The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur repeatedly draw us into moral and spiritual self-examination. And yet, during this season the tradition invites us to make some time to examine ourselves in every way – not only in terms of our righteousness. The invitation is to look at all of our habits and patterns: our health, our work life, our family life, our friendships, and perhaps most importantly, our happiness.

Yes – our happiness. Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the great Hasidic master, taught that it is a mitzvah – a sacred obligation – to be happy. This philosophy is based on a trust that authentic happiness only can take root when a person is living in harmony with the Divine will. And what is the Divine will? I like the prophet Micah’s response to that question. “…what does God require of you? Simply to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

This passage from Micah is usually read as a summary of one’s moral obligations in this world. But what if it’s actually a simple formula for becoming happy? The duty to seek one’s own happiness is not an argument for selfishness – rather, it’s a proclamation that God wants us to be happy, and that real happiness won’t come from cruelty, selfishness, injustice, arrogance or materialism.

In order to be happy – really happy – one of the first things we have to do is be honest with ourselves. It’s hard to find happiness if we’re denying something important, or avoiding something we need to face, or pretending to ourselves about something. We need some measure of serenity to find happiness, and we can’t have serenity if we can’t look at ourselves truthfully. Once we are truthful with ourselves about the patterns in our lives that are causing us distress, we can begin the holy work of seeking true happiness. Our tradition teaches that we can call out to God – however we might conceive of God – and ask for help discerning what steps we need to take on that path towards greater harmony and serenity.

Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come to us in an air of seriousness and sobriety, they are quickly followed by Sukkot, a holiday in which God commands us to be ach sameach – deeply happy! The payoff from the deep self-assessment that culminates in Yom Kippur is the inner peace and joy of Sukkot. May we be blessed with the courage to seek happiness.

L’shana tova,
Rabbi Maurice