The Joy of Meaning and Purpose

By Erica BrownDirector for Adult Education, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning By my count, the concordance, the guide to … Continued

By Erica Brown
Director for Adult Education, Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning

By my count, the concordance, the guide to biblical words, lists the appearance of the term “simcha” – only one of many biblical words for joy – 269 times. Book after biblical book includes the notion of happiness. So often when we think of Judaism, our focus is on persecution or despair, crisis or theological density. It’s good to know that the Bible makes lots of room for happiness. It positively demands it in any number of situations.

In one of our classes, we deal with Jewish joy as a subject. Participants fill out some written, personal and reflective questions to begin our time together. The first question is “When you think of Judaism do you think about suffering or joy?” It’s a fair question. I invite you to consider your own answer. In the class, we always have a range. Some people associate Judaism, particularly Jewish history, with a litany of tragedies that make happiness feel distant. Others experience Shabbat meals, Jewish weddings, holidays and the emphasis on family as pure joy. Most people write down both, even though that’s not a listed option. Our suffering is part of our history, and it can make our joy more intense.

The Bible is an ancient text that discusses happiness, but the conversation never stopped there. Today there seem to be more books (and medications) on the market to help us be happier. One of them is a relatively new book called Happier. Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, its author, runs one of Harvard’s most successful classes. He attracts 1,400 students a semester, about 20% of all Harvard graduates. What’s his subject? Happiness. Who knew that along with organic chemistry, intro to English literature of the 16th century and calculus, universities now offer students a chance to think about happiness. So what does this Israeli professor think about happiness?

In the school of positive psychology, Professor Ben Shahar believes that to be truly happy you need both present benefit and future benefit. If you live only for the present, the hedonist model, you may be happy now but miserable later. That cake spent a minute on your lips and possibly weeks on your hips. You thought you were happy eating it, and maybe you really were. But the after-effects are rarely worth it.

People who live only for the future and neglect their current happiness are labeled in this model as those in the rat race. They work hard and suffer in the present, aiming for future benefits that also seem far away. They stay late in the office night after night, missing their families for the security of having a retirement fund that allows them to travel the world one day. Today’s economic crisis shed a different light on this thinking for many people who lost retirement savings and decided to enjoy themselves more today.

Ben-Shahar concludes that for happiness to be authentic and long-lasting it needs to come with a sense of purpose over time: “We need the experience of meaning and the experience of positive emotions; we need present and future benefit.” Leading an ethical life and one of meaning is not only a good idea from a moral standpoint; it is also a key to experiencing deep joy.

Recently, we welcomed the Hebrew month of Adar with Purim as its centerpiece, made famous for the Talmudic aphorism that “When Adar arrives we increase our joy.” If happiness is about what’s good for us now and what’s good for us later, what are you doing to make this month even happier?

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and the Scholar-in-Residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is also an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University, was a Jerusalem Fellow and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She is the author of “Inspired Jewish Leadership” and “The Case for Jewish Peoplehood.”

The Partnership is hosting a conference called Routes: Exploring Jewish Together. It will be held from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday March 15 at George Washington University. Featured panelists include “On Faith” co-moderator Sally Quinn, NBC’s David Gregory and Middle East policy expert David Makovsky.

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  • chkpointe

    Where is the joy, who will shed tears for the families in the West Bank and Gaza? Families not only have had their homes destroyed illegally in order to give it to settlers, they have slaughtered Palestinians. From Time magazine, ” I looked down and saw my 2 year old daughter lying there with her insides spilling out. And the soldier shot my other two girls. I’m not Hamas, my girls weren’t Hamas. ” This from a family ordered out of their home so that they could watch their children being executed. Were it not for the JewishVoiceforPeace, I couldn’t definitely have a problem distinguishing between Jews and Zionists.

  • ivri5768

    “So often when we think of Judaism, our focus is on persecution or despair, crisis or theological density. It’s good to know that the Bible makes lots of room for happiness. It positively demands it in any number of situations”This is quite true. Another constant is justice, along with which comes happiness. MichaelNJ:The poor will always be among us, says Deuteronomy, and, among the poor are the bigots, the intellectually impoverished, such as the blogger you mention in your post. Now, imagine, if every time an essay appeared on Christianity, bloggers started posting about say, the Iraq War, the attacks on Afghanistan, etc., or about the Vatican and the Fundies trying to take over the legislature. Hmmmm…maybe, bloggers should do precisely that so that fools like the one you mention might have an opportunity to learn what they sound like. What say you?

  • bigbrother1

    MichaelNJ: You are lying. The IDF admits to execution and there is a great deal of evidence to back up the claim that they torture.I’ve never doubted that Judaism does not equal Zionism, and that there are even many forms of Zionism, some repugnant some not. I am of Jewish heritage on my father’s side though I was never raised a Jew. My wife teaches at a synagogue.The atrocities of the massacre of Gaza do not cease to exist because a possible anti-Semite declares them or because a Jew denies them. They are fact in any case.Purim is a joyful holiday, especially for children. Let us think of Israeli and Palestinian children as the joys to their parents that they are. And let us judge Israelis and Palestinians by their actions.

  • ivri5768

    Bigbrother writes to MichaelNJMichaelNJ: You are lying. The IDF admits to execution and there is a great deal of evidence to back up the claim that they torture.I’ve never doubted that Judaism does not equal Zionism, and that there are even many forms of Zionism, some repugnant some not. I am of Jewish heritage on my father’s side though I was never raised a Jew. My wife teaches at a synagogue.The atrocities of the massacre of Gaza do not cease to exist because a possible anti-Semite declares them or because a Jew denies them. They are fact in any case.Purim is a joyful holiday, especially for children. Let us think of Israeli and Palestinian children as the joys to their parents that they are. And let us judge Israelis and Palestinians by their actions.March 12, 2009 12:08 PM I look forward to reading such posts. Do you get it, Bigbrother? And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the Afghan people, the Iraq people never fired missiles at us. And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the US did not drop thousands of leaflets on Iraq offering the people safe haven. Not that this is relevant, since, again, this essay has nothing to do with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.But since you seem, along with the other blogger to associate religion with particular nations, I assume what’s good for Jews is good for Muslims, Christians and Hinudus. That’s only logical. And surely you are logical. However, it does give you additional justification for pursuing your religio-political postings, irrelevant though they may be, and allows you not to appear sectarian, bigoted, and antisemitic. We know that isn’t the case, and will know better when we see you post in a way consistent with this on Muslim, Hindu, and Christian threads.

  • MichaelNJ

    BIGBROTHER1 :

  • kengelhart

    “for happiness to be authentic and long-lasting it needs to come with a sense of purpose over time”The question is where we get our purpose. Is it from a compacted sense of self pity or from an expanded sense of collective endeavor. Fear in the world creates conditions where the only joy is experienced hidden away from one’s enemies and enjoying those things one’s enemies would withhold. Success in collective endeavor can dissolve these fears, but not quickly or easily. Trust in one’s fellows and in nature itself is an attitude one must choose. It is not easily learned. Linking one’s purpose to the universe cannot leave out any other humans, not to mention other living things, or the Earth. Any purpose less than this will result in an existence hidden away from the world, exulting in joys that are stolen.

  • ivri5768

    “Purim is a joyful holiday, especially for children”MichaelNJ:

  • MichaelNJ

    ivri5768 : Obviously pursuing their agenda, everywhere and at all costs, is far more important to them than being on point.

  • edward1

    The discussion here has wandered a bit. I’ll try to reply to “What are you doing to make this month even happier?”(1) I’m a reasonably ardent Zionist, that is, one who wants a safe and prosperous and peaceful place for Jews in their historic homeland. I believe there will not be such place for Jews there unless there is also a safe and prosperous and peaceful place there for Palestinians. I’m out working for that, speaking to any group that will invite me.(2) I’m celebrating Purim, in traditional ways. This involves enjoying reading the book of Esther, which is, among other things, a fun book. It is arguably, for example, the model for the James Bond novels. (Reread it in that light. If you’ll accept a female spy who manages liquor well and does well in bed, and don’t mind M’s full name being given, it is straight James Bond.) (3) Respectable classical Jewish scholars point out that the miracles of the Book of Esther would not have been possible without two of God’s inventions, sex and alcohol. My parents always used it as an excuse for our annual birds-and-bees discussion, illustrated with biblical texts. I commend this to others: clearly, not enough parents talk with their kids properly about either subject, and especially about the conjunction of the two.

  • peaceful2008

    “MICHAELNJ :What I did not foresee is that the customary jerk would use this platform to spread hair-raising Arab propaganda lies. For your information, the IDF does not execute anyone. The only executions – and torture – carried out during and after the Gaza operation, were done by the Hamas, against suspected “collaborators” and political opponents, as reported by Amnesty International”Whether or not you do recognize the critisism of Israel does not modify the problem.Israel is still guilty of war crimes, Jewish or not. However, Israel uses Judaism to justify its behavior! It is like Muslims using the “Jihad” concept to kill others as oppose to apply it as the struggle between good and evil.

  • ivri5768

    Israel is still guilty of war crimes, Jewish or not. However, Israel uses Judaism to justify its behavior! It is like Muslims using the “Jihad” concept to kill others as oppose to apply it as the struggle between good and evil.The United States, using Christian crusading as an excuse has slaughtered 622,000 Iraqis and countless Afghan people who did nothing to them. Nothing. The same Christians have indoctrinated and worked tirelessly to prevent the use of birth control in Africa and South America, to fight abortion here, etc., in other words to exercise considerable influence over humanity, much of it deadly.Oddly, enough, Peaceful, I didn’t see your posts on the subject on the threads of Christian bloggers.Oddly enough, I saw nothing of honor killing (one out of every three murders in Palestine is an honor killing), terrorism, etc, on the Muslim threads. On the Hindu threads, where are your posts against bride burning, female feticide, the enslavement of the Dalit???GEE WHIZ, Peaceful, if we don’t see these threads soon, we’ll just have to consider you a Trolling Bigot, and ignore you.BYE.

  • ivri5768

    Edward1,I agree with you about the Book of Esther; it is spectacular writing, like so much of the Tanakh. Judaism is so continually focused on Tikkun Olam, a blessed obligation, of course, The blessed obligation, that we sometimes lose sight of the blessedness of existence, the sheer joy that some of us have been able to sustain in the very worst of circumstances.In this, Erica Brown is quite right. Judaism is not a salvivic. The “good news” is humanity, his/her capacity for good, ability to heal the world. That is reason to be joyful, indeed.Ivri