DIVREI TORAH

VA-ESCHANAN: ARE WE REALLY HAPPIER, HEALTHIER & BETTER OFF?

OHR TZVI ON THE PARSHA: VA-ESCHANAN – ARE WE REALLY HAPPIER, HEALTHIER & BETTER OFF?

Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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You know that they enrich our lives in the next world.

But did you know that they also enrich our lives in this world?

Its what the New York Times discovered when it commissioned a study to identify “the happiest person in America.” In that study, the NYT, polled thousands of people, so as to verify: At what age are people most content? In which geographic area are people most satisfied? And, pertinent to our discussion, which religion’s practitioners are the happiest?

The happiest American? He’s an “Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65, married with children, and living in Hawaii.” [1]

We aren’t studying Asian-American. And we aren’t studying Hawaiians or the “over 65’s.” So we won’t explore what makes for those groups’ happiness.

But we are studying Orthodox Jews. So we will explore what makes observant Jews happier.

One factor would be our better marriages.

That displays itself in our low divorce - only 10% of Orthodox Jews divorce. That’s a fraction of the general public’s 48% divorce rate.[2] And its not just about a low divorce rates that maintains Band-Aid marriages. It’s about happier marriages, as per the following poll: “72% of Orthodox men and 74% of Orthodox women rated their marriages as excellent or very good… in the general public only 63% of men and 60% of women …were very happy in their marriages.”[3]

Another factor would be our better mental health.

We read: “Across several variables, more Jewish communal involvement correlated with better emotional well-being. 13% of synagogue members, for example, reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. This rose to 26% among non-members. The more frequently one attended Jewish programs, the less likely one was to experience social isolation, dropping from 63% among those who never attend to 28% among those who attend once a week or more.”[4] In sync with that, we’re told: “research shows that religious faith can bolster mental health resilience and help foster recovery from mental illness.”[5]

Another factor would be our better physical health.

The Israeli newspaper, Ma’ariv notes: “Ultra-Orthodox Israelis are healthier and live longer. Haredi cities have a higher life expectancy - as much as three years longer - than would otherwise be expected based on socioeconomic factors.”[6]

This idea - that mitzvos also enrich our lives in in this world – can be extrapolated from our parsha’s rendition of the aseres ha-dibros. That rendition – for reasons that we will soon explore - differs markedly from the first rendition of those dibros, back in parshas Yisro.

One of those difference is in how Shabbos is described. In parshas Yisro, we read: “Remember Shabbos to make it holy…because Hashem created the heavens and the Earth…because of that Hashem blessed Shabbos and made it holy.”[7]

These dibros connect Shabbos with Hashem’s creation of the world. Shabbos, then, is about keeping creation and divinity in mind. We fulfill that by making kiddush and davening.[8]

In the second dibros, in our parsha, we read: “Guard Shabbos to make it holy...so that your slave and maidservant should rest like you…remember that you were a slave in Egypt.”[9]

Shabbos, then, is about maintaining memories of Egyptian slavery that sensitize us to the needs of the downtrodden. These dibros, then, are about addressing human needs. We do that by allocating a day of rest for family and community.

And we’re not just being told to address the divine and the human. We’re also being told in what order to address those obligations.

Shabbos’ divine aspects are mentioned first, back in parshas Yisro. That may indicate that we're meant to first focus on the divine. That focus will finesse and refine us. Once that happens, we can move on to the second dibros – and address familial and communal needs.

Yes, Shabbos is about the divine and about the human. And it isn’t just Shabbos.

Other mitzvos – one example would be kashrus - also address those two arenas.

Kashrus insures that “impure” foods don’t defile our potential for spirituality.

Kashrus is also about the discipline that food limitations instill in us. That discipline can help us control our tempers, our loose tongues and so much else.[10]

Kashrus’ food limitations also demand that we dine - and, therefore, socialize - with our co-religionists.[11] That fosters a sense of community that prompts us to uphold community standards and to feel responsible for community members.

Allow me to add one more example – berachos.

Berachos are about thanking Hashem for what Hashem gives us.

They’re also about learning to say the right thing at the right time. About not taking gifts for granted. About expressing appreciation. About learning self-discipline – which happens when we always wait a minute to make a beracha before we eat.

Yes, we really are happier, healthier and better off.

And isn’t that for good reason?

[1] New York Times, March 5, 2011

[2] Jewish Action, March 2017

[3] Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2010.

[4] Ben Sales, EJP, March 18, 2022

[5] Rob Whitley, Psychology Today, December 28, 2021

[6] Ma’ariv, December 23, 2015

[7] Shemos 20:8-11

[8] Mechilta ad loc.

[9] Devarim 15:12-15

[10] Akeidas Yitzchak, Vayikra 60

[11] Shadal, Vayikra 11,1

 

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim. Rabbi Weber will be scholar in residence at the Hudson Valley Resort for the Yomim Noraim & Sukkos. For information, please email or call (845) 794-6000

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