This week’s parsha, Re’eh (literally: “See!”) is all about learning to see the world through different eyes. This may explain why the particular mitzvah of being joyous on the festivals, occurs in this portion.
Specifically on the festival of Sukkot, the third of the biblical festivals when every Jew was meant to come up to the Temple in Jerusalem to rejoice in the midst of the entire Jewish people we are commanded, “Ve’hayita’ ach sameach” (And you shall be completely joyous) (Devarim 16:15).
How does one develop the skill-set to being a happy person? And can one maintain such joy in the face of inevitable adversities?
Take for example, Moshe’s brother, Aaron, who, as part of an enslaved people in Egypt might have been expected to be quite miserable. Yet, he is the only individual in the entire Torah who is described as being happy! No less than G-d Himself tells Moshe that Aaron will, upon seeing Moshe (just arrived back in Egypt after 40 years), “rejoice in his heart” (Shemot 4:14).
In the midst of all that pain and suffering, after being enslaved as a people for over two centuries, Aaron succeeds in focusing on the positive and is able to rejoice in his heart at his brother’s return. What is the secret to being happy? How does Aaron do it?
On the other hand, consider Haman, who represents the opposite extreme in the spectrum.
Haman, chief adviser to Achashveirosh, king of the entire Persian Empire, is essentially the second most powerful person in the entire world. He is happily married (albeit to a wicked woman), with no less than ten sons who seem to idolize him and want only to follow in his footsteps, and every subject of the Persian empire who crosses his path must bow down to him.
And yet: Ve’kol zeh einenu shaveh li (all this is worthless to me) (Esther 5:13) — simply because one Jew, Mordechai, will not bow down to him! Haman cannot see all the good he has because he is so focused on what he doesn’t have.
Herein, perhaps, lays the key to happiness: Haman cannot focus on all that he has because he is stuck on what he does not have.
Being happy is not really about how much we actually have, it is rather about appreciating how much we have. And it is only through appreciation that we really have things at all.
And it gets deeper, because if happiness is all about purpose (hence people who feel they have no purpose are depressed, whether they be financially well off or not, and people who are imbued with a sense of purpose have joy in their lives), there is no true purpose unless we are created. If we are a random accident in a G-d-less world, there is no purpose to our being here in the first place, which of course is very depressing.
But if we are created by G-d, we have purpose. And then by definition we have what we need, always! Whatever skills we were born with are, by definition, all we need to accomplish our purpose in this world.
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Even in the midst of the servitude of Egypt, as soon as Aaron sees Moshe, he knows Moshe is coming into his life again because somehow he needs Moshe to help him achieve his purpose. Otherwise, why would G-d have sent Moshe to him after all these years? And of course, if I need Moshe in my life to achieve my purpose in this world, then it is only natural that seeing Moshe again after 40 years will fill me (or in this case Aaron) with joy.
All the other festivals ultimately lead, economically and theologically, to Sukkot, the harvest festival. Hence we truly rejoice on Sukkot, when the purpose of all our hard work becomes clear.
Happiness is achieved when we succeed in tapping into what we each feel our purpose is meant to be, which of course is what joy is all about. But there is a character flaw which seems to lie at the root of unhappiness, and that is pride.
Haman, asked by Achashveirosh how to pay homage to a person the king wants to honor, immediately assumes the king is speaking of none other than Haman himself. (Esther 6:6: “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me!”)
Compare that to Moshe who, upon being told by G-d that he must go to speak with Pharaoh, says, Mi anochi ki eileich el Pharaoh?” (Who am I to go before Pharaoh)? (Exodus 3:11)
For Haman, it is all about Haman, but for Moshe, it’s all about G-d and the Jewish people. Moshe sees himself as a tool in something much greater, while Haman considers himself the goal of all that he does. And a person like that always feels he is missing something.
Too much pride will make you miserable. Because what is pride all about? Pride suggests that it’s all about me, but true joy is about recognizing that I am just a vehicle to a greater and higher purpose.
May we all succeed in finding joy in our lives by learning to see all we have, and finding the clarity to decide, as individuals and as a nation, what we are meant to do with it all.
A version of this column was published in 2012.