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Happiness From Service - Parashat Bo 5780, January 31, 2020

Our parasha, Parashat Bo, is the third in a set of four parshiyot dealing with the experience of b’nei yisrael in Mitzrayim.

Moshe and Aharon approach Paroh and declare that if he refuses to let the Jewish people go, the plague of locusts will be unleashed upon Egypt. Moshe elaborates and explains that all of Egypt will be consumed. Moshe and Aharon leave Paroh. Paroh’s servants complain to Paroh. “How long will you allow Moshe to be a trap for us? Let the men go so that they should serve their G-d. Do you not know that Egypt has been destroyed?”

The Torah continues the narrative. “And Moshe and Aharon were returned to Paroh. Paroh says to them, ‘Go serve the Lord your God. Who and who goes?'

Moshe responds, ‘We will go with our young and with our old, we will go with our sons and with our daughters with our flocks and with our herds; because it is a festival unto G-d for us.’”

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, known by the name of his commentary on Torah, Kli Yakar, develops an intriguing explanation of this passage. He begins by explaining Paroh’s query to Moshe and Aharon - Who and who goes? Paroh was asking what other nation goes into the wilderness in order to serve G-d. In other words, Paroh was exclaiming that even if one looks all around, it is unheard of to find a nation that walks into the wilderness in order to serve G-d. According to this explanation, Paroh was struck by the unique nature of the Jewish idea of a festival.

Kli Yakar explains that, in his response, Moshe was pointing to two aspects of a Jewish festival – serving G-d and cultivating human happiness. These two aspects explain Moshe’s language – serving G-d – a festival unto G-d – and happiness – for us. The existence of these two dimensions explain Moshe’s seemingly cluttered statement. “We will go with our young and with our old” – these groups are obligated to serve Hashem by offering sacrifices. “We will go with our sons and daughters” – these groups will help us to be happy – after all how can we be happy if our children were left in Egypt as collateral for our return. “With our flocks and with our herd” – we will use these animals to sacrifice to Hashem.

What is a Jewish festival? From Moshe’s statement, we see that a Jewish festival consists of two attributes – a
mitzvah to serve Hashem and a mitzvah to be happy. How is service of Hashem linked to happiness?

On each of our festivals, we are obligated to be happy and, in Temple times, to bring an offering as a result of our happiness. Additionally, we are each obligated to make each member of our household happy to the best of our ability according to each member’s needs and wants. Furthermore, as an act of the 
mitzvah to be happy, we eat meat and drink wine and, in Temple times, we would eat of the festival offering. When we eat and drink, we are obligated to feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and others who are oppressed. The Torah castigates one who locks his doors to these people on the holiday. Such a person is said to have simchat kreso – happiness of his belly – as opposed to simchat mitzvah – happiness of mitzvah.

These laws demonstrate that the Torah promotes a paradigm in which happiness is achieved through serving or helping another. We are obligated to be happy not simply by acting happy – eating meat and wine – but by coupling this eating with an act of service to Hashem and by making others happy.

The Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, also speaks of the relationship between service and happiness. To paraphrase him, happiness cannot be attained by wanting to be happy - it must come as the unintended consequence of working for a goal greater than oneself. Even the act of eating meat and wine on a festival – an act designed to promote our own happiness – is itself an act of commandment – a mitzvah. In performing this act of mitzvah we are serving G-d. Although the decision to perform a mitzvah comes from us and from our own free will, the commandment itself is outside of us. By performing this commandment, we are serving G-d.

Modern psychology recognizes a truth that Moshe Rabbenu conveyed to Paroh 3300 years ago – happiness and contentment flows from one’s dedication to a cause or goal outside of oneself. This truth is as important to the Jews who were enslaved in a miserable existence in Egypt as it is for modern man. Happiness cannot be directly pursued. Happiness is a result of living a life committed to goals outside of oneself – pursuing truth, justice, learning, wisdom and service of Hashem and His commandments. Even earning money so that one can promote these goals can promote happiness. It is the dedication to this commitment that helps a person to be happy.


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