The Happiness Story

One of the mysteries of life in Israel is why people are so happy here.  Major happiness studies consistently place Israel in the top tier of societies where people are the happiest.    Tourists often are taken by this phenomenon—there is a joyful energy in this little country that amazes and confounds them.  How can there be so much happiness in a tough neighborhood?  How can people even relax, let alone be happy, when they are living in a place where terrorists are murdering people, where the Jewish people continue to be targets?  How can there be so much happiness in a place where Israelis and Palestinians suffer?  How can there be so much happiness in a place where there is a good deal of poverty?   How can there be so much happiness in a place where there is so much tension—between Jews and Muslims, between Israel and Iran, between Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and secular, between settlers and left wing  peace activists?  In an Israel that feels less communal, with less social solidarity, more “privatistic” like America—how are we to explain all this happiness?

Let’s begin answering this question by considering Jewish  religious DNA.  Happiness is an important Jewish attribute and goal.  Here are a few examples of teachings from the depths of our religious tradition:  Rambam (Maimonides), Laws of Lulav, 8:15 “The joy that a person should have in the performance of the mitzvoth and the love of the God who commanded him—is a great service (avodah gedolah), and anyone who abstains from this joy is worthy of punishment, as it says (Deuteronomy. 28:47) “Because you did not worship God your Lord with joy and goodness of heart.”  Rabbi Chaim Vital, Gate of the Mitzvhot, Introduction “The root that all leans on is that when performing the mitzah one should…be joyful in performing that mitzvah, with a joy that has no end, from heart and willing soul and great desire…and according to the extent of his joy in truth and internal goodness of heart, thus he will merit the higher light, and if one persists in this there is no doubt that one will merit the holy spirit, and this matter is true for all the commandments…”  Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, Likutei Moharan, B, 24 “It is a great mitzvah to be in joy at all times…”

This “leaning” towards happiness influenced every generation of Jews.   Even in dark times people pursued happiness as best they could.  Consider this poem.

Flower by Avram Sutzkever, Vilna Ghetto, May 29, 1943
For wanting to smuggle a flower through the gates
my neighbor paid the price of seven lashes.
Now these blue petals with their nucleus of gold
are such a precious sign of spring returning.
My neighbor bears his scars with no regrets:
Spring breathes through his flesh, with so much yearning.

The Zionist Revolution did not alter this cultural insistence on joyfulness and happiness.  It reinforced it.  This is surprising because many associate the Zionist Movement with its stern calls for social justice, for saving the Jewish people, for renewing Jewish culture, for sacrifice, and for tikun olam (social action and charity work).  But in the heart of the Zionist message was a call to happiness.  Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism, writes in his book Old New Land that in this new Jewish country every person, men and women, are encouraged to fend for their personal happiness.  Rani Jaeger comments on Herzl’s message, “Zionism is a movement to make Jews happy.  It’s not to save Jewish culture, not to create a renaissance.  Our leaders need to listen—let Jews be happy!  It’s not about redeeming the world. It’s about the destruction of melancholy.  Zionism comes to help you love life again.”

I met a Holocaust survivor while vacationing near Tiberias.  He showed me the number the Nazis gave him burned into his arm.  We got to talking about life in Israel when he suddenly said, “I hate the left wing, and I hate the right wing—I just want a little peace and quiet.”  He is part of the “longing for happiness brigade” which marks so many here in Israel.

It turns out that this longing for happiness worked its way deeply into evolving Zionist thought.  Dr. Gadi Taub of the Hebrew University School for Public Policy wrote:

Zionism, as a revolution, sought to restore the Jews to the material world.  That means, first and foremost, a return to politics and history.  It was explained that the Jews would be responsible for their fate and are not only victims of circumstances created by others.  But it went beyond that—because the struggle of Zionism against the ethos of the purity of being in exile, in which the Jew lives in a world of the spiritual and scorns the material, also became a struggle to return to the physical and the corporeal in the private sense.

The new Jew, as opposed to the heroes of Yiddish literature or even Woody Allen, has power, not only brains.  And he was also reconnected to the sensual and to the sexual.  I think that as part of the idea of ‘Let us live in this country’—the battle cry of the General  Zionists—was the notion ‘Let me enjoy life in this country.’  That went against the ascetic ethos of Mapai (the forerunner of today’s Labor Party).  Success in the material world is also an expression of a deep current within Zionism.  What’s new, or what has taken on an American form, is that the whole project has channeled itself into avenues of individualism that we’ve adopted from other sources, primarily American sources.

Two other factors help explain the happiness situation here in Israel.  One is Shabbat.  Israel is the Sabbath Observing Capital of the World.  There’s nothing like it anywhere.  Even in secular Tel Aviv and the communities in North Tel Aviv almost everything shuts down and Friday evening the whole country is celebrating with a Shabbat dinner.  It’s like America on Thanksgiving except that it happens once a week instead of once a year.  This whole country fills with gratitude one day out of seven.  We’re hard wired for it.  Add to that the soft-ware—the singing, our prayers, the relaxed table-talk, the celebrations as friends and family gather together—and you have a recipe for happiness.  Every single Shabbat is practice at the art of letting go and we are able to let go of a lot of our stress and tension.  There will be plenty to worry about when Shabbat is over but for now we change gears.  This art of creating a different reality for ourselves gives us bounce—a resiliency that helps us pick ourselves up when the tough times come.


The other factor that must be honored is that after the Holocaust the Jewish people made the decision to live.  It could easily have gone the other way.  By all rights we could have walked away from the whole thing.  But instead we signed on for another hitch.  We re-affirmed our Brit—Our Covenant—with the Holy One of Blessing.  I can’t prove it.  I can only testify to it.  But it seems to me that the remarkable uplifting energy in this country is tied into this renewal.  We are alive and we are committed to life and that is enough reason for us to declare, over and over, that life is not only to be chosen (CHOOSE LIFE!)—it is to be celebrated.  If you are reading this from outside of Israel I invite you to take in the Tel Aviv Beach, walk the streets of any of our cities, experience a Jerusalem Shabbat, and see for yourself.  The commandment to rejoice is alive and well here in the land of Israel.

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