December 17, 2018

Torah portion: The secret to happiness

We all want to be happy. Yet, happiness is elusive, and even defining happiness is a challenge. 

Throughout our history, we have turned to the Torah for wisdom and guidance. Does the Torah have anything to say about happiness? A line in this week’s Torah portion may provide the key to unlocking its secret.

Ancient Israel was an agrarian society. The rhythm of their lives was set to the cycle of planting and harvesting. The uncertainty of life was most exaggerated from spring to summer as the nation anxiously awaited the fruits of its labor. Accordingly, the first fruits of the harvest season were especially treasured and appreciated. 

The Torah commands the farmers of Israel to make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem with the first fruits of their bounty. This produce was delivered to the priest as a gift called Bikkurim. The farmer would then make a proclamation that chronicles a condensed version of the history of the Jewish people, recounting the story of our forefathers traveling to Egypt, the bitter years of slavery, the sweet experience of salvation, the entry to the land of Israel — a land flowing with milk and honey — and how it has all led up to this very moment in which every farmer is bringing gifts to the Temple.

When the farmer concludes his proclamation, the verse says: “And you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord, your God has given to you.” (Deuteronomy 26:11) Now the farmer is happy.

I always find this verse surprising. I think that I would be happy when the first fruits appeared. I would be happy when I knew that the crops would yield produce. Why would I be happy now, after a pro-forma proclamation?

We are accustomed to the idea that it feels good when we are validated and acknowledged by others. When another person validates my feelings or experience, I feel good. I think some people might even say that being validated could make a person happy. What we see in this verse is that validation actually makes the validator happy!

When the farmer sees the crops are growing, the farmer feels validated. All the hard work and all the fears of uncertainty were not in vain. The farmer feels validated by God. That feels great — but that’s not happiness.

Real happiness comes when the farmer validates and acknowledges God. The farmer verbalizes the internal feelings of appreciation and this makes the farmer happy. Now the farmer is happy. 

This is the secret of Bikkurim. In order to maximize the farmer’s harvest experience and to feel the greatest elation possible, the Torah commands the farmer to acknowledge the Source of the harvest. That is what will give the farmer the greatest joy.

It is so important that we feel validated in our lives. We definitely feel good when we are acknowledged by others, but it is not the key to happiness. True happiness is when we give that validation to others.

The message here is not that God is the Giver of all things. That’s a given in the context of the Torah. The message here is that whenever we are the beneficiary of kindness or generosity, we have an opportunity to create happiness. If we acknowledge the giver, we make the giver feel good, but we also make ourselves happy.

It’s important to consider the inverse as well. With so many people stuck in the doldrums or simply seeking more happiness in their lives, it is possible that they don’t feel enough joy because they are looking in all the wrong places. Neglecting to validate others might be what is making so many of us unhappy. When we are the beneficiaries of a kindness and we do not acknowledge the giver, we can even begin to feel resentment toward the giver. 

The cumulative effect of this discomfort gnaws at our consciousness. It’s so counterintuitive to think that the kindness of others is making us unhappy, so we don’t even realize that it could be the answer to our sorrow. If we do not properly acknowledge kindness toward us, we are bound to feel a sort of sadness because we have failed to acknowledge others. I think this is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness. 

It’s in our hands to create happiness. Remember the lesson of Bikkurim. Say thank you. Acknowledge the goodness done toward you. It’s good for that person, and it’s even better for you.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is an Orthodox rabbi, writer and teacher in Beverly Hills. He blogs at