. . . And the Pursuit of Happiness
America was built on the premise that all people have an
"inalienable right" to pursue happiness, as well as the
rights to life and liberty as recorded in the American
Declaration of Independence whose anniversary is this
These latter two rights, as interpreted over the last 227
years, have served the Jewish people well, providing a refuge
from persecution and the sanction to pursue our vision of
avodas Hashem without interference. For this, the
Jewish people must feel a deep gratitude to the American
people in recognition of what they have provided and allowed
Moreover, the sense of morality evident in the Declaration of
Independence has made America a champion of justice and enemy
of evil throughout the world, coming directly or indirectly
to the aid of oppressed Jews in Europe and seeing it as a
duty to rid the world or evil tyrants from Hitler to Hussein.
For this we are grateful both as those who suffered from
their evil as well as our overall interest in tikkun
Notwithstanding all of this, and perhaps as part of our
gratitude, it behooves us to warn that America has, in recent
decades, pursued "happiness" in too many ways that are wrong
and ultimately self-destructive. We can certainly not give a
full catalog of how this has expressed itself -- in part
because it would be too long and in part because it would be
too ugly and disgusting -- but just mention a few
The bounds of what is socially acceptable in the areas of
retzicha (murder) and arayos (intimate matters)
have been repeatedly broken down. Modern heroes are those who
manage to do in public something that was hitherto considered
intensely private. They are hailed and applauded for "pushing
the envelope" and, perhaps more importantly, are showered
with riches -- the ultimate American sign of approval. The
consumer culture pressures everyone to consume more and more.
The breakdown of a personal sense of morality makes people
care less about how they achieve their desires. The happiness
that is pursued has become defined overwhelmingly in terms of
carnal pleasures, the lowest form of happiness that there
Scholars say that this was not the intention of the founders
of America, who wrote in the Declaration, "That to secure
these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . "
When they spoke about what they envisioned, they often used
biblical images such as, "to be at peace under your vine and
fig tree with none to make you afraid."
Though the Torah lifestyle does not ignore or suppress the
pleasures of the body, there is a great stress on social
pleasures that are unknown in modern America which glorifies
the pleasure of individuals. The weekly seudas of
Shabbos, the periodic observance of yom tovim in the
family, and the celebration of life cycle events that are
usually accompanied by a gathering of people and often for a
festive meal, provide a steady source of genuine pleasure of
a higher kind. The pleasure that one derives from being a
part of a community of like-minded family and friends
striving together for spiritual improvement is great and
lasting -- and totally alien to the spirit that prevails in
America these days.
Our call is to our own people: In such times it is more
important than ever that we not be swept up in the excesses
and decadence of the moment. We must ensure that we are truly
a holy people and thereby provide an example of what the
pursuit of happiness should be.
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