Americans are unhappier than they have been in more than a decade. Even as the economy improved after the financial crisis, American happiness levels remained stubbornly stagnant. Not only did they not rise, as the economy improved, happiness levels continued to fall. In the latest the rankings of happiness levels, by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, the US ranked 18th on the list. Behind a handful of Scandinavian countries, and even Canada. So how do we find happiness? If you google “How to be happy?” (which appears to be the second most asked “How to?” question on google, right after the question “How to be single?”) you will find a variety of answers. These range from “get out more”, to “fake it till you make it”, to breathing exercises. All of these suggestions may be perfectly valid, however the Torah views happiness and how to achieve it in a different light.
The theme of happiness appears at the beginning of our Parshat Ki Tavo. “Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” The Torah tells us that we will have the opportunity to rejoice in our land. But happiness will not come to us simply by being in the Land of Israel. Rather, it requires us to act and behave in certain ways.
“You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground,” the Torah tells, us “which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you.” Before the Jewish people can rejoice, they must bring the first of their fruits as an offering in the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple. This commandment was not so simple to fulfill. For months, the farmers had been waiting for their crops to be ready for harvest, struggling to ensure they would grow enough to feed themselves, their families, and perhaps have enough left over for the poor amongst them. Through blood, sweat, and determination they reached the point that they were ready to harvest their fields, and now at this point, when the work finally seems as if it was complete they were told that they must bring the first crops that they gather as a sacrifice in the Beit HaMikdash. The bringing of this sacrifice was not part of any petition on the behalf of the farmer for sustenance or forgiveness. So, what is the purpose of the mitzva?
There is a midrash that leads us to a possible answer. According to the Midrash, Moshe saw in a vision, that the Beit HaMikdash would be destroyed in the future, and as a result the bikkurim, the first fruits, would no longer be offered. As a result, Moshe decreed that the Jewish people should daven three times a day so that the essence of the mitzvah of bikkurim would not cease.
The Midrash draws an unlikely connection between our obligation to pray three times a day and the first fruits that were offered. We often think of prayer as an opportunity to give G-d praise and at the same time ask for things that we need, but for some Jewish thinkers this was not the purpose of Jewish prayer at all. Perhaps the most radical representative of this group was, the philosopher and social critic, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who wrote: “Prayer is not an attempt to bring the Creator to intervene in the order of Creation…prayer does not mean that one is asking God to change that order for one’s personal benefit, but that it is rather a means of communing with God through His service regardless of what transpires in the natural world – anyone who does not understand this has never in his life offered a prayer of one who believes in God.” Leibowitz was infamous for his sharp language and for being an iconoclast. His views of prayer are of course not the final word on the subject, however, they are important counterbalance to the prevailing ones. For Leibowitz, we pray for no other reason than that we are commanded to pray, just as the farmer offered up the first of his hard-earned harvest for no other reason than that he was commanded to do so.
The shared moral message then, of both the mitzva of bikkurim and tefillah, is that it teaches us to act unconditionally out of concern for another, without any sense that we will get something in return. We bring bikkurim, or daven, simply because we were commanded to so. It is only then, according to the Torah, when we have sacrificed of ourselves without any thought that we will receive something in return that we will be able “To rejoice with everything that God gave us…” It is through giving of ourselves for others, the Torah teaches us, that we can find happiness.
This may seem like a tall order, but it is not an impossible one. A week ago, John McCain past away. It is hard to think of a contemporary politician whose life was as defined by sacrifice as McCain’s. Yet, despite all the hardship he endured, he wrote in his farewell letter, “that I am the luckiest person on earth…I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.” While McCain’s war time story is well known, other stories of his life are less famous but no less poignant. Twenty years ago, before running for president he was profiled by Michael Lewis for the New York Times. Lewis described how McCain would visit the retired Congressman Mo Udall “In his time,” Lewis writes, “which was not very long ago, Mo Udall was one of the most-sought-after men in the Democratic Party. Yet as he dies in a veteran’s hospital a few miles from the Capitol, he is visited regularly only by a single old political friend, John McCain. … Beneath a torn gray blanket on a narrow hospital cot, Udall lay twisted and disfigured. No matter how many times McCain tapped him on the shoulder and called his name, his eyes remained shut.” McCain found happiness in his life through service and this is a lesson deeply embedded in the Torah. Few of us would want to endure the sacrifices McCain made as a POW, all of us though can visit someone in the hospital who is too frail to speak or even wake up. Ultimately, it is through giving of ourselves and doing for others that we can find happiness and fulfillment in our lives.