In this week’s Parshah, the Torah warns of a series of dire consequences that will befall the Jewish nation even if they are performing all of the mitzvos, so long as they commit one particularly severe sin: the sin of not serving Hashem with happiness (28:47 - see Rabbeinu Bachaye).
Why is it so important to Hashem that we serve Him with happiness? Furthermore, happiness is an emotion. You either are happy, or you are not. How can Hashem punish us if we do not feel happy? Lastly, the Torah never commands us outright to be happy. If so, why is the punishment for not being happy so severe? Furthermore, if it is so important to be happy, why didn’t the Torah command us to be happy in the first place?
Chaim was a hard working father. He woke up each morning at 6am to start his day, and never made it home at night until after his son was already fast asleep. One day, he decided to go all-out and give his son the day of his life. In the morning, they went together to the park, hiked in a forest, and made a picnic. His son was on cloud nine. After the picnic, Chaim took his son to the ice cream store. His child asked for vanilla with colored sprinkles, but the man who worked behind the counter said “I’m sorry. We are out of colored sprinkles”. Much to Chaim’s surprise and chagrin, his son stomped his foot on the ground in anger and declared “worst...day...ever!”.
As much as we may be annoyed at the boy in the story, if we truly think about it, are we really so different? Hashem provides us with a lot. While it sounds cliche, take a look around the world and you will see people lacking many of the things you have - such as a wholesome family, a peaceful home, no debt, chronic illnesses, fights with neighbors, etc. We have a LOT to be grateful for. However, because life is a test, we don’t have every single thing our hearts desire. Is that a reason to be unhappy?
R’ Avigdor Miller would often dispel a common but terrible misconception. Some people think “this world is lousy and painful, but don’t worry; It’s all worth it, because one day it will help me reach the World to Come”. R’ Miller explains that this person is an ingrate to the highest degree imaginable! Why do you think Hashem made the sky a beautiful blue, the trees a beautiful green, or your apple a beautiful red? Why did He make your breakfast, lunch, supper and snacks so tasty? What purpose can all of this possibly have? It’s only to fulfill one single goal: to make you HAPPY even in THIS world. When a person feels that going through this “terrible world” is worth it just so he can make it to the World to Come, gets up to Heaven after 120, he will be in for a big surprise. Hashem will be waiting there and will say to him “what were you talking about?! Didn’t you notice all of the good and love I showered upon you? I was giving you so much good so you would be happy and realize how loved you are, and all you could say was ‘oh well, at least there’s a World to Come???’”. We have SO much good and must realize how blessed we are even in THIS world! Let us not be like that boy in the story.
Some of us who are reading this are thinking “okay, I’ve heard stuff like this many times before. We have so much blessing... But if this is true, and we are truly so greatly blessed, then why aren’t we happier? Why aren’t we soaring high with joy?”. This can best be answered by investigating a common phenomena: how is it possible to forget where something is, even when you are actually HOLDING it in your own hands (yes, it happens to us all)?
Timothy Kenny, author of "Accelerated Learning for Entrepreneurs”, explains as follows:
Your brain is only able to pay attention to about seven things at a time. If you are trying to multitask, or focus on something else, you will lose awareness of what's in your pockets or what you are holding in either of your hands. If you aren't focusing on something, it can exist in reality, but it won't enter your zone of consciousness. It's kind of like a microscope. You can only see the narrow fields that it is focused on. Everything else, for all intents and purposes, does not exist.
Although we may all agree that we have an abundance of blessings in our lives, the reason why we aren’t happier is because our brains can only focus on a limited amount of things at any given moment. This means that unless we make a conscious effort to internalize what we have, all that we are blessed with will have little or no effect on our happiness whatsoever. Happiness requires a commitment to stop and think about what you have in your life, and all that Hashem has given you. Your spouse, children, health, parents, siblings, job, etc. Consider spending a minute each night, or maybe on your drive home from work, thinking about this. If you don’t, then no matter what you have, you will not find happiness through it nor will you appreciate it for long.
It is actually for this very reason, namely that one can easily overlook even the most enjoyable things in life unless one specifically focuses on them, that food connoisseurs eat differently than most people. You see, my siblings once went to a chocolate tasting to taste a basic, common piece of chocolate. Before they were given their first taste, they were given precise instructions on how to enjoy the treat that they were about to try. “First”, they were told, “you must look at the chocolate and take in the deep color, it’s texture, etc. After all, a blind person doesn’t enjoy his food as much as we do, as a food’s pleasant appearance greatly enhances its taste. Next, make sure to smell the chocolate. Take in its strong aroma. Studies prove that the smell of a food adds almost 50% of enjoyment to the taste, as anyone who has ever eaten something with a bad cold can attest to. Next, while bearing the appearance and smell of the chocolate in mind, put the chocolate in your mouth, but don’t swallow it right away. Our tongues have hundreds of unique taste buds, and you want to make sure that as many of them as possible come in contact with the food in order to savor it. Now, repeat this process for your next bite”. My friends, my siblings reported that they never realized just how delicious an ordinary, common piece of chocolate really is! Although it may seem silly at first, if we went through life performing the above practices when we eat, as well as while we go through our other enjoyable daily routines, we would be the happiest people alive doing the same exact things that we are already doing!
With this, we can answer our questions. Hashem wants us to be happy. In fact, EVERYTHING that He does, including His initial decision to create us in the first place, was only so He can make us happy and bestow His goodness upon us (Derech Hashem). The reason why Hashem can command us to be happy, despite it being an emotion, is because we ARE in control of our happiness. Once you decide to spend more time focusing on what you have, recognizing that those blessings shouldn’t be taken for granted, and focusing on the goodness of those things, you WILL be happy. The reason why the Torah doesn’t command us outright to be happy, is because it shouldn’t NEED to. In the story with the sprinkles, would the fact that the father did not “command” his son to be happy, excuse his child’s outburst? No! Rather, we expect him to be happy because he has so much good.
There is so much Hashem does to make us happy. Taking the time to actually be happy, is the greatest favor you can do for yourself, and is also a tremendously important act of serving Hashem, as illustrated in this week’s Parshah. In the words of R’ Miller: “If someone says out loud even once in his entire life: ‘thank you Hashem so much for giving me a home and a family that loves me so much’, that is a great accomplishment. He is fulfilling his purpose in this world. If you do it right now, it was worth it for you to have been created”. This Elul, may we accept upon ourselves to take a minute each day to contemplate all that we have to be grateful for and verbally thank Hashem for them as often as possible. Additionally, may we accept upon ourselves to pay more attention to how enjoyable our food, air conditioning, music, and all of our other daily enjoyments are. May we become true connoisseurs of happiness. This is as vital of a component in serving Hashem as any, and an excellent step in truly recognizing Hashem and His goodness.