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Against Happiness

A haftorah of joys and tribulations

Liel Leibovitz
July 09, 2010

The prophet Jeremiah launches this week’s haftorah with a poignant question. Channeling God’s voice, he asks, “What wrong did your forefathers find in Me, that they distanced themselves from Me, and they went after futility and themselves became futile?”

What follows, in the grand prophetic tradition, is a litany of complaints. Again we see the Israelites grumbling and scheming, comically disobedient and deeply corrupted. And again the prophet concludes with an exhortation for the errant people to mend their ways and find a path back to God. But Jeremiah never answers his own question: What wrong did God’s Chosen People find in their divine benefactor that led them astray?

For hints of an answer, don’t ask a prophet. Ask a parent.

In a gargantuan piece in New York magazine, Jennifer Senior plumbed reams of social science studies to try and explain why parenting, as the article’s headline poignantly put it, was all joy and no fun: why, in other words, so many parents are reportedly thrilled with having had children and yet driven to despair by the daily machinations associated with raising these very same tots. Senior’s finding is unsurprising—parenting, she writes, is one of those thoroughly satisfying yet frequently unenjoyable activities that give us little immediate pleasure but much by way of meaning and a sense of purpose.

Herein lies the solution to poor Jeremiah’s conundrum. Senior writes of the disappointment common to many new parents—the slow, sinking realization, after years of living as independent and carefree adults, that raising a child is an emotionally draining undertaking demanding of all manners of sacrifice. It’s not hard to imagine the Israelites feeling the same way. There they were, after all, a band of wanderers, chained in the house of bondage but never without their bit of meat and other earthly delights. Then, suddenly, midwife Moses delivers them a newborn covenant, and all of the sudden there are so many things they just can’t do anymore, like nibble on a ham and cheese sandwich or spend their Saturdays doing whatever they please. And just like so many contemporary moms and dads who ponder the value of parenthood, the Israelites start wondering whether this whole business of having a God is even worth it.

Whether we realize it or not, it’s a question that has become a staple of modern life. We may not always put it in such epic terms, but the decisions we make often force us to choose between two irreconcilable drives: the theistic and the solipsistic. The first suggests to us that there is a God up or out there and that even if we don’t follow a particular religion we’re at least obliged to acknowledge that some things are more worthy than our mere selves. The second argues the opposite, claiming that since we can’t really know for sure the true nature of anything that exists outside of our own minds, we may as well not worry about it too much.

These, of course, are profound and complex philosophical positions, but they’re frequently the engine behind simple, earthly behaviors. Greed, for example, is inherently solipsistic. Think of BP carelessly operating its drilling site just to save a few dollars and leading to the worst ecological disaster in the nation’s history, or of corporations seeking unrealistic profit margins and bleeding dry entire industries as a result. Fear-mongering is solipsistic as well, as are most of the dark urges that have come to power our politics, our economy, and so much of our personal lives.

Luckily for us, Jeremiah has an answer at the ready. The prophet never doubts that worshipping Ba’al is a kick—the Canaanite deity’s followers, after all, believed that the best way to make the earth fertile is to fornicate in the temples—but he also knows that kicks, by their very nature, don’t last very long. By worshipping God, he promises his people nothing but blood, sweat, and tears, a heavily regulated life burdened by restrictions and controlled by commandments. But he also promises them the much deeper joy that comes with doing not what feels right but what is right to do.

If we are ever to grow—as individuals and as communities alike—we would do well to follow Jeremiah’s example. This would likely mean setting aside our obsession with happiness, too often understood as the pursuit of gratification, and focusing instead on righteousness, the bleaker but more substantive quest for truth, love, and justice.

And if you have any qualms concerning what it’s like to give up so much by way of instant pleasure for something else, something more important, something bigger than yourself—hey, just call your mother.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.