Deut. 26:1 – 29:8
Rabbi Gary Pokras
What is the difference between joy and happiness? And which is more important?
Years ago, I read an extraordinary book by an author with whom I often disagree: Dennis Praeger. It is called Happiness is a Serious Problem and it is without question one of the handful of books that changed the way I see the world for the better. In it, he offered an eloquent argument for the vital importance of happiness, and offered techniques for how we can cultivate more and deeper happiness in our lives.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l) offered a different, equally compelling interpretation in one of his commentaries to this week’s Torah portion.1 He challenged the preeminence of happiness, even while acknowledging its importance. Why? Because in Judaism, happiness is secondary to joy. Among the most quoted passages from Ki Tavo is: “Then you will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given you and your family, along with the Levites and the stranger in your midst.” (Deut. 26:11)
Rabbi Sacks contrasts this with the opening verses of the Psalms:
Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah of the Lord; on his Torah he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers. (Ps. 1:1-3)
The Hebrew word for Happy is ashrei. In the Bible, it describes a life of blessing, and deep rootedness, able to weather the winds and vicissitudes of life with serenity and strength. The Hebrew word for joy simcha. Simcha is about gratitude and celebration, and unlike ashrei is never about us as individuals but rather, as Rabbi Saks teaches, is “about what we share.”2
Happiness is something we pursue, just as Dennis Praeger teaches. It is an attitude that we can cultivate, which, with effort, we can apply to the entirety of our lives. Joy comes upon us from without. According to Rabbi Saks: “It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God … It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.”3
Ashrei is a central American value, enshrined in our Declaration of Independence. In the Jewish Bible it is especially prominent in the Psalms, some of which we recite daily. However, ashrei is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah. In contrast, simchah occurs once in each of the first books of the Torah, and then an astonishing twelve times in the book of Deuteronomy. In our Torah portion, it relates to bringing the first fruits to Jerusalem.
As an American, I understand the importance of pursuing happiness. As a Jew, I revel in the shared experience of joyful gatherings. Joy is about living in the moment. No matter how difficult our history, no matter how threatening our future, we take set times to celebrate. Who knows what the future will bring? We are here now, and time is precious to us mortals. Yes, we must remember. And yes, we must prepare. However, we cannot forget to rejoice, to find gratitude together, for all that we have now: our lives, our relationships, the Torah we have learned, the food we eat, the community we share. Happiness strengthens and roots me as an individual. Joy brings us together as a community, it provides context for our lives, and places us firmly in a life affirming tradition and a remarkably resilient people.