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The Pursuit of Happiness Throughout Parshat Yitro

Published on Friday March 5th, 2021

Parshat Yitro represents a decisive and fundamental step in the constitution of the Jewish people. Indeed, the gift of the Torah that we witnessed, was the culmination of the process of liberation from Egyptian slavery.

As everyone knows, freedom in Judaism is not a license to do what one wants and to be one's, own master. Indeed, our tradition is wary of bodily desires and harmful impulses which can be introduced in the heart of the man and lead him on a dangerous path.

The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was the giving of the Torah, and the people's acceptance of all the divine commandments, the sole guarantors of man's true freedom. Regarding the commandments, our Sages teach us: "Al Tikra Charot Al Haluchot Ela Cherut - Do not read [that the commandments are] Charot - engraved on the tablets, but read it instead Cherut - freedom!"

The commandments of the Torah are indeed intended to free man from the bad instincts that can naturally arise within him, because of his physical make-up, and in the absence of spirituality, they are likely to counterbalance them. But we have to realize that the body and materialism are not disqualified in our tradition, but on the contrary, they are precious gifts that the Creator of the world has entrusted to us and we must cherish them and sanctify them, by using them for spirituality.

The Sages of the Talmud teach us that G-d created the Torah precisely to defeat the incessant attempts of the Yetzer Hara - evil inclination, to make man sin and prevent his self-realization: "I created the Yetzer Hara and I created the Torah as an antidote." (Kiddushin, 30a)

Our Parshah introduces us to the famous ten commandments that are actually referred to in our tradition as the "ten words - Asseret Hadibrot". Our Sages offer us several ways of looking at these commandments and in particular at the two tablets on which they were written.

A first analysis involves seeing the first tablets, as inscribed with the commandments dedicated to the relations between man and G-d ("Ben Adam Lamakom") whereas those inscribed on the second tablets refer to the relations between man and his neighbor ("Ben Adam Lachavero")

A second possible analysis involves seeing the first three of the commandments as relating to G-d, the following three commandments relating to the notion of "creation" (of the universe or man), and the following three as relating to the foundations of society (marriage, respect for private property, justice) (Rav J. Sacks).

The last of the Ten Commandments, however, is surprising in that it claims to regulate a domain that is neither action (adultery, theft, murder), nor speech (false testimony) but feelings: "You will not covet…''

However, how can man control his emotions, the desire that is born spontaneously in his heart when he looks at what his neighbor has and what he is lacking? We can expect a man to control what is in his power, but how can we ask him to control his emotions?

Finally, was it so important about jealousy that it is placed in the corpus of essential laws, among the range of all dangers threatening man and society? Certainly, it is reprehensible, but it ultimately represents only one feeling that can remain inside a person without material realization?

In reality, the Torah draws our attention, at the climax of the Decalogue, to a particularly pernicious stumbling block that naturally originates in man's heart and fundamentally destroys his existence, his relationship with men, and more importantly, his relationship with G-d.

In fact, the human mind is naturally inclined to compare with others and to wish to have what it cannot have. This is an eternal truth: man tends to value what he does not have and to underestimate the importance of what he does have. This observation is at the origin of the first sin that was a desire for the forbidden fruit because it seemed "good as food, a delight to behold and valuable for intelligence." All trees were allowed and only one was forbidden, but it was already too much, the temptation was too strong, the lack too intense to resist.

Cognitive and behavioral sciences have recently confirmed a truth that the Torah revealed to us long ago: what man feels has an impact on who he is. Indeed, the way we perceive ourselves, the trust we have in ourselves and in our relationships with others are not mere individual beliefs, they are embodied in our words, in our actions and condition our ability to succeed in many areas.

In addition, envy and jealousy are the main drivers of violence and hatred between men, from the murder of Cain who killed his brother Hevel to the recent analyses of the sociologist René Girard on the ravages of violence linked to the "mimetic desire" of men (Rav J. Sacks).

Also, greed is not a mere thought, it contributes not only to methodically destroying the psyche of the individual but also his relationships with others.

These elements would be sufficient to justify the inscription of this Tenth Commandment. But that is not all.

Envy and jealousy result in a completely erroneous vision of life, and of the general situation of the world. It causes a man to regard everything that happens as if it is normal, and everything that he acquires as ordinary, and anything that he lacks as an unjust anomaly. Man sometimes naïvely thinks that he could keep everything that suits him in his life, and simply add other things that he thinks would be profitable to him.

But only G-d Himself is capable of apprehending all the ins and outs of an existence and, beyond that, of the general economy of the world and of the universe. Everything a man possesses, every event he experiences has been precisely measured and adapted to his needs, and at every stage of his life. Hashem watches over each of us individually and does not entrust any of our destinies to the randomness of life.

What good is it then to look at what others have? It's ultimately a matter of diverting one's attention from one's destiny and from what we can accomplish in our lives. On the contrary, we are invited to look at all the riches that we possess and which Hashem has given us, and to ask us how best to exploit them to flourish and serve the Creator of the world in the best way possible.

Such an outlook is likely to bring forth a feeling of deep gratitude in the heart of man because man becomes increasingly more aware of Hashem's infinite kindness to him and he is left with only two words to say; "Thank you!"

Gratitude is one of the keys to the Jewish faith. The very root of the word Jew- "Yehuda" has the word Hodaa meaning thanksgiving and gratitude. We start the day with a short but significant prayer: "Modeh Ani - I thank you". Before speaking, before walking, before even thinking, we begin by saying thank you to G-d for giving us life again, and this word should not leave our lips all day. Indeed, as long as man reinforces his gratitude towards his Creator, he will feel no lack, no lust, no desire. These are born when a man begins to compare himself to others, thus weakening, G-d forbid, his relationship with G-d (Rav J. Sacks).

Let us remember the teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot: "Who is happy? He who is happy with what his lot.'' True happiness resides neither in the accumulation of wealth, nor in the fantasy of obtaining what we lack, but on the contrary, in the ability to be conscious of all that we possess and to conceive a deep gratitude to Hashem for all that He has given us.

Not only does this change the way we look at life and increase our happiness, but this mindset is likely to open new horizons both inside ourselves and in our relationships to others, and it will allow us to see, with Hashem's help, many miracles and successes that we did not expect!

Shabbat Shalom!

Jérome TOUBOUL - © Torah-Box Account

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