Israel: The Happiest Place in the World?

My grandparents were married for 75 years. They passed away over the last two years, both at the age of 97. At their 75th wedding anniversary, I thought to myself that I had never met or known of another couple who had reached this remarkable milestone.

Originally from Lithuania and later South Africa, my grandparents made Aliyah in 1979 to Tel Aviv. They left all their children and grandchildren behind in the hope that they would follow. They were leaders of the Jewish community and great Zionists and believed that this was the right thing to do. Indeed, they were privileged that all their children and grandchildren followed suit and all live in Israel today.

My grandparents always seemed to have a loving and happy marriage. So, when I first got married, I decided to ask my grandmother a question about happiness in marriage. I was totally unprepared for the answer that I received. When I asked her whether her 55 years of marriage at that time had been happy ones, she responded as follows: “You know, I have never really thought about it.”

I could not believe that a person who had been married for 55 years had never thought about whether or not their marriage had been a happy one. It made me realize how different our generation is as we seem to be obsessed with the pursuit of happiness and are continually questioning whether we are happy about all aspects of our lives. Herein lies a remarkable irony: the generation that relentlessly pursues happiness seems to be the most distant from it.

This is the central theme in cultural critic Ruth Whippman’s book, America The Anxious – How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.[1] She quotes a study of psychologists from the University of California, Berkeley who show that “paradoxically, the more people valued and were encouraged to value happiness as a separate life goal, the less happy they were.”

The American writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau put it well when he said “Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits softly on your shoulder.”

Why is this the case? Why is the quest for happiness the very sign that we won’t find it? The answer is that happiness is not something we find when we search for it but a by-product of living life in the correct way. What emerges clearly is that happiness is not a transient emotion or a destination to be pursued but rather a state of being. The more one lives in sync with one’s core values the more happiness finds us. The moment we detach ourselves from living life and begin to search for happiness as an end in and of itself, the more it evades us. Happiness is a natural result of living life the way it should be lived – of being the people we ought to be. Happiness cannot be a destination but is rather a result of the journey of an inspired life process.

It is this very state of being, says Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, that we ultimately hope to be blessed with on Sukkot.[2] After all, only this holiday is defined in our prayers as זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ – the time of our happiness.[3] Additionally, it is the only holiday where we find the unusual expression of simcha, וְהָיִיתָ אַךְ שָׂמֵֽחַ, “You should be only happy,” implying a type of complete or ultimate happiness.[4] What is the meaning of this phrase? Rav Hirsch explains that it refers to a state of being, a mindset that we hope to achieve having been celebrating in G-d’s presence in the Temple precinct for the entire seven days.

Happiness can be transformed into a character trait, a permanent quality and a joie de vivre that accompanies us throughout our lives. It is this state of being that we hope to take with us into the long, rainy winter months. Indeed it can only be this mindset that will successfully see us through the ‘winter periods’ of life, the difficult and dark times.

The Malbim[5] states that this is the very meaning of the word שִׂמְחָה in Tanach, as opposed to שָׂשׂוֹן. These are the two primary expressions of joy in the Bible and they have distinct meanings. שָׂשׂוֹן is an expression of external celebratory joy whereas שִׂמְחָה is a more internal and ongoing sense of joy – a state of being.

Perhaps this is the reason why Israel is continually rated among the happiest countries in the world. At least according to the UN World Happiness Report conducted annually over the last eight years. The report ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be, according to six key variables: GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make choices, freedom from corruption and generosity. Year in and year out, Israel is in the top 10 to 15 countries, scoring ahead of countries such as the UK, Germany, Luxembourg, the US and over 140 other countries.

What is striking about these findings is that Israel ranks ahead of dozens of countries who don’t face the ongoing challenges of aggressive Terror States on their borders (Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon), a threat of nuclear extinction (Iran’s publicly stated aspirations and nuclear program), ongoing Palestinian terror attacks and therefore the need for mandatory military draft. Incredibly, despite these unique threats and being situated in one of the toughest regions in the world, Israel scores high every time.

How can this be explained?

It seems to me that living in Israel, despite all the challenges, comes with a great sense of being Jewish. Israel is the only country that G-d promised to the Jewish people and no other nation has so long and deep a connection to a land like the Jewish people’s connection to Eretz Yisrael. It is somehow linked to the essence of Jewish life, to our ultimate purpose. Journeying to the Land like Abraham, walking the same streets as Samuel and fighting like King David to defend the same country gives those living in Israel a unique sense of connection to Jewish history and destiny. An indescribable feeling of being Jewish.

This also explains an unusual detail of Halacha. Why is the Priestly Blessing (duchening) performed every day in Israel, but only on Yamim Tovim in the Diaspora? The Rema explains[6] that a Kohen must be in a state of simcha to bless the people. Since this can be achieved only on the holidays, as they are designated times of celebration, only then can the Kohanim perform the blessing.

I always struggled to understand this as in Israel Kohanim perform this every day. Are people happier in Israel? There are many unhappy people in Israel and many very happy people around the world, and vice-versa!

It seems that the answer is as explained above. The happiness being discussed here is not the individual measure of this or that person, but rather a deep and collective state of being. There is something about being in Israel, a spiritual synchronicity, a type of X-Factor plugging one into a deep state of alignment with Jewish destiny and hence a state of happiness.

Sukkot, Shemini Azteret and Simchat Torah are unique opportunities to tap into this sense of simcha. To celebrate Jewish life, the mitzvot of the day and to stand in the presence of G-d. When we are living in sync with our deepest values, we merit the resultant blessing of living with happiness as a state of being. We hope and pray that it accompanies us throughout our lives. The butterfly will then sit constantly on our shoulder.

[1] St. Martin’s Press 2016.
[2] Rav Hirsch’s commentary on Deuteronomy 16:15.
[3] Of the three times in Torah that simcha (joy) is mentioned in connection with a holiday, two are about Sukkot.
[4] The simple meaning of the verse refers to Sukkot. Rashi quotes the Talmudic commentary in Sukkot 48a which connects it to the last day of chag – Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. This day (days in the Diaspora), when there are no particular mitzvot such as sitting in the sukkah or waving the lulav, seem to be the crescendo and pinnacle of our happiness. We simply celebrate being in G-d’s presence alone and are most primed to achieve this level of ultimate happiness.
[5] Rabbi Meir Leibush. He mentions this distinction in a number of places, for example, see Isaiah 35, 1, in his section on the meaning of words.
[6] Orach Chaim 128:44.

This article appears in the Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret & Simchat Torah edition of HaMizrachi, published by World Mizrachi in Jerusalem and distributed around the world

About the Author
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Chief Executive of the Mizrachi World Movement, a global Religious Zionist movement based in Jerusalem with many active branches around the world. He is an organizational leader, sought after international speaker and author.
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