Though Thomas Jefferson was undoubtedly a great intellect and a skilled political leader, I have never been given to carefully dissect his writings in order to discover subtle philosophical nuances and deeply hidden meanings. Usually, for me, only Torah contents are worthy of such scrutiny, for their messages are eternal and relevant for all times, circumstances and every generation - and indeed every individual must fathom deep meaning from them for one’s time and place.
However I have always been struck by Jefferson’s phrase “the pursuit of happiness” as it appears in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. He proclaimed in that document that life and liberty are the basic and inalienable entitlements – absolute and automatic – of all human beings having been created equal by God. But he apparently held that happiness is not such a given and automatic state of entitlement for human beings and their affairs.
So he only proclaimed that the new country would strive to guarantee for its citizens merely the right to pursue happiness. There is no outside power, governmental or otherwise, that can truly promise and achieve happiness for human beings. For happiness is a spiritual emotion and character trait of the soul and not of the body. In the realm of spirit there are no outside forces that can aid an individual in his or her quest for spiritual fulfillment. We can only pursue happiness; there is no promise or guarantee that we will ever truly achieve it.
Much of the problems that now afflict human society here in Israel and in the Western and even general world stem from the confusion of physical comfort and luxury living with the concept of happiness. Though no one willingly preaches illness and poverty as a way of life – the idea of bodily self-mortification passed from the scene in Europe in the late Middle Ages, though it still resonates within certain Catholic orders even today – yet it is a fact of life that good health and a modicum of comfortable living are necessary in order to help generate a feeling of inner happiness.
But these are obviously only means to an end – a combination of tools to use to try and fashion happiness in our lives. They are definitely not the end in itself. But for many in our world these means and tools have become the end – the goal. They will always be engaged in the tiring pursuit of happiness without ever having the ability to obtain for themselves that spiritual moment of true happiness.
King Solomon in Kohelet stated: “All of the ways and words of the world are exhausting.” And so they are. We are comparable to the greyhound dog in training, for the dog chases the mechanical rabbit that it will never catch up to. There can be little wonder that our world is plagued by depression and frustration, violence and bitter divisions. No matter how diligent we may be in our pursuit of happiness and contentment, that pursuit is doomed to end in failure.
Now that the month of Elul is here with us it is only natural that we should consider and assess our true spiritual state of being. We all have problems that confront us - family, health, finances, etc. – that disturb our pursuit of happiness and contentment. But King David, who had more than his expected share of problems and disturbances exclaimed in Psalms: “Were it not for the Torah of Yours that gladdens me I would be lost in the poverty of troubles that surround me.”
King David explains to us that only in the pursuit of Torah and spirit, in the eternal view and perspective that only Torah can provide for the Jewish soul, can one escape the poverty and depression of the empty soul and the spiritual void that can never encompass true happiness.
When the Torah bids us that on Succot, that one “should be decidedly and completely happy,” it is not asking the impossible of us. It has provided for us in the month of Tishrei sufficient mitzvoth and spiritual exultation to feed our soul and fill our spirit.
In apparently discarding and departing our homes and physical comforts temporarily we grant ourselves the ability not only to pursue happiness but to actually achieve it, albeit in a fleeting and impermanent manner. But in being granted the right to pursue happiness we should persist in that wearying pursuit, for again in the words of the great rabbis of the Mishna: “A moment of spiritual happiness in this life is greater than all of the rewards of the World to Come.”