Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choices and a Life of Happiness vs. a Life of Meaning

In this week’s double dose parsha, Moses completes telling the Jewish people the laws of the Torah and all the blessings and curses they will receive depending on whether they choose to follow it or abandon it.  He reassures them that keeping the mitzvos really isn’t impossible.

“For the mitzvah which I command you this day, it is not beyond you, nor is it remote from you. It is not in heaven . . . It is not across the sea . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth, in your heart, that you may do it.”

Then, he reminds them that it is their choice which path they will take, that they have the freedom to choose.  He is confident that they’ll make the right choice.

“I have set before you life and goodness, and death and evil: in that I command you this day to love G‑d, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments . . . Life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse. And you shall choose life.”

In this way, the Jews at this point face the same choice we all have.  There is a saying that every day, you are a single choice away from a completely different life and every day each of us makes choices that shape the direction our lives will go.  We often forget the power we have and frame these choices as if we had no free will at all.

“I have to go to work.”
“I wish I had more time, but I have to do these chores.”
“I’d rather live someplace else, but I have a mortgage and a job here.”

The fact is, there is very little in our lives that we don’t have the freedom to choose.  We can even choose to break the law and suffer the consequences or not pay our bills and have our house foreclosed on or not go in to work and lose our jobs.  There are consequences to our choices, but we still have the freedom to choose.  Similarly, we have a choice to follow the Torah and receive its blessings or to ignore the mitzvos and suffer the curses and this choice is still very much as open to us now as it was when Moses reminded the Jewish people of it.

As usual, I began studying this week’s parsha at a time where it really seemed hand picked for me.  I had just finished watching a TED talk about meaning and how meaning is actually more important for a fulfilling life than happiness.  To me, this talk fits so well with the message of Nitzavim.

Often, the choice to avoid a positive mitzvah or break a negative one comes with it the promise of happiness.  If I give in to eating at that non-kosher restaurant with friends, I know the food will probably be delicious.  My friends will enjoy spending time with me without my religious beliefs getting between us.  I will feel more connected to the community around me, more “normal.”  I may even experience quite a bit of warmth and happiness from the experience, at least while I am there.

The Torah asks me to consider the idea that there is more to life than this happiness in the moment, that there is something deeper and more fulfilling.

If I avoid giving tzedekah, I will have more money to spend on myself and my family.  I could buy my kids things that they like or we could spend that extra money on a family trip.  It would ease some of my husband’s financial worries and strains.  For a while at least, this choice looks like the one that would lead to more happiness for myself and those I love.

And again, as I consider a choice like this, I’m asked to really think about what is more important…happiness or meaning?

In her TED talk and book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness author Emily Esfahani Smith breaks down meaning into 4 pillars.  To her, meaning is comprised of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendance.  Belonging refers to a feeling of being connected to others, that we have relationships that are important and give us a reason to much of what we do.  Purpose is comprised of feeling like we have a calling or some goal greater than ourselves and often involves serving others or making the world a better place.  Storytelling involves the way we frame the events in our lives and how we consider them to have shaped who we are as a person.  Transcendance is those moments where we glimpse something greater than ourselves and are inspired by it.

I would say that Torah gives us all of these things, fulfilling each of the pillars of meaning that can form a meaningful life.

Living a Torah filled life connects a person to a larger tribe, to the Jewish people.  It sets a person apart from the world, marking them outwardly by mitzvos like tzitzits, kippahs, hair covering, and tznius and marking them by their behavior in so many ways and it also connects them to others who are striving after the same goals.  Orthodox Jews by the very nature of their observance need to live together in communities and bonds between Jews are strengthened both from within and, all too sadly, from the outside world as well.  Even an atheist Jew will still often consider themselves part of the Jewish people and are considered Jewish by most Jews as well.

Living a Torah life is a wonderful way to find a greater purpose in life.  Whether it’s engaging in Torah study, raising and educating Jewish children, participating in Chesed activities to help the community, fundraising, fighting antisemitism, or even just trying to be the best Jew you can be, Jews are very focused on bringing positive change to the world around them.  We can see a very tangible example of this in the US right now as Chabad houses work to feed and shelter people in both Texas and Florida following hurricanes and the Orthodox Union works to raise funds for rebuilding.  From every corner of the Jewish community, there is an outpouring of support when tragedy strikes or a need is seen.  One can’t help but find a basis for this spirit of giving and helping in the pages of the Torah.

Storytelling is central to the identity of a Jew, the Torah itself is the story of how the Jewish people became a Nation and it is through these stories, being told and retold over and over again that the Jewish nation was able to hold onto a cohesive identity despite being scattered throughout other nations for so much of their history.  As individuals, Jews also tend to have a rich tradition of storytelling with stories of survival and spirits that could not be dimmed at the forefront of each family’s story.  Jews who believe deeply in Torah are often shaped by it to be people who view the events of their lives as having some positive outcome, even if that outcome can’t be readily seen in the moment.

Finally, we come to transcendance.  Many Jews find transcendence within the walls of the Synagogue in the cries and songs of prayer.  Particularly this time of year, it is difficult not to feel moved.  Others, though, find those experiences in holding a grandchild, hiking a mountain, creating art or music, studying Torah, or even just in the simple candlelight of Shabbos.  Orthodox Judaism is filled with rich sights, sounds, and even smells like the scent of baking challah that engage the senses and bring us out of the ordinary world.  There are endless opportunities even within an ordinary week to step outside of our everyday lives and connect with something deeper.

In her work, Esfahani Smith, argues that Western culture’s over emphasis on the pursuit of happiness is actually getting in the way of us living deeper, more fulfilling lives.  She argues that because happiness is just an emotional state that comes and goes, basing a life on it means that fulfillment is fleeting as well.  We begin to worry that something is wrong if we aren’t happy all the time, if we can’t simply sit serenely, basking in this peaceful happiness we’re supposed to be finding through work, success, material goods…something.  Her argument is that it is really meaning that makes life worthwhile and satisfying and leads to greater long term happiness and that really it is the pursuit of meaning that we should be occupied with.

As I listened to her words, I found myself agreeing, but also thinking that this was simply the same argument that Moses was making, thousands of years ago when he told the Jewish people to choose life and goodness by following the Torah’s path to a life of meaning, not just pursuing happiness.

2 thoughts on “Parshas Nitzavim-Vayelech: Choices and a Life of Happiness vs. a Life of Meaning

  1. Thanks for posting this, I needed to read it today! Maybe it’s because I’m not American, but I’ve often thought that Thomas Jefferson opened a can of worms for Western civlization when he said the pursuit of happiness is an inalienable right. Happiness, I suspect, comes more when you are pursuing other things, such as love, kindness, meaning and so on.

    Like

    1. You have a good point. Perhaps the thinkers of the Enlightenment should have thought more about what really brings lasting happiness rather than simply the fleeting emotion. I think perhaps “fulfillment” or “contentment” might have been better goals?

      Liked by 1 person

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