The Moral Dimension of Happiness


It is the Shabbat of Hanukkah, typically a time when we give and receive gifts.  But this Hanukkah takes place in the tenth month of our pandemic. What is the right kind of gift to give in a pandemic?

In his book Morality, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks  contrasts the happiness that comes from the market with the happiness that comes from a moral dimension.  When we try to find our happiness in the market, he puts it this way: we spend money we don’t have, on products we don’t need, for a happiness that won’t last.  By contrast, the biblical and rabbinic traditions emphasize a moral dimension.  Happiness is not what you buy or what you own.  Happiness is what you do, living a moral life, being a force for good in the world.

A few months before he died, Rabbi Sacks was interviewed by Tim Ferris who asked him what historical precedents there are for understanding something as utterly devastating as the pandemic.

Rabbi Sacks observed that there are two precedents within the last century.  The first was the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic.  In 1918 people responded to this trauma by being me-centered.  The Roaring 20s and dance parties.  People tried to party their cares away, to buy happiness in the marketplace.  The roaring 20s were a season of emptiness.

The other precedent for massive devastation was World War II, which prompted the opposite response: not the me-centered era of the roaring 20s, but the we-centered era of America’s World War II effort which saved the world from Hitler and the Marshall Plan through which America extended loans to every country in Europe, including Germany, which resulted in decades of peace.

One response: the roaring 20s. The happiness of the marketplace.

The other response: World War II and its aftermath.  The greatest generation. The happiness that flows from a moral dimension.

All of which results in a major paradox.  Very often happiness does not flow from a happy time.  Happiness flows from our moral response to a very unhappy time.   Fighting Hitler. Not happy.  Storming Omaha beach as Nazis are shooting down on American soldiers. Not happy. Rebuilding the shattered world after the war. Not happy.    But the greatest generation knew that happiness flows from our moral response to a very unhappy time.

Which means all of us face this question.  Will the pandemic change us by deepening our moral dimension?  Will the pandemic change us by allowing us to respond to his deeply unhappy time in a moral way that will make us happy?  As Michelle puts it, I just love this,  if we are the same after the pandemic as we were before, we missed the point of the pandemic.  Can the pandemic galvanize us to make a difference in a new way?  Let me tell you a story that concretizes what I am talking about.

The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the New York Times daily podcast featured a food pantry in Brooklyn where people started lining up for food at 4:00 a.m.  The podcast tells the story of how Brooklyn residents would wait four, five, six, seven hours for a bag or two of groceries.    There were so many people in need of food, such dire food insecurity, such real hunger on the streets of Brooklyn, that the food lines went for blocks and blocks and lasted all day long.  Nikita Stewart is the Times reporter who brought this story to life.  She interviewed the people waiting in line for hours.  Why do you do this, she would ask.  And different people shared their version of their answer to that question. We are hungry. We lost our job. We have no money with which to buy groceries. We are out of food. My family is hungry.  That is why we wait, in order to feed our family.

Now this is obviously very dark stuff, very unhappy.  But the kicker to the whole podcast comes when Nikita Stewart tells her own story.  She is a reporter for the Times.  What drew her to cover desperate people seeking food in a food pantry?  She reveals that she grew up in a family that lived on food stamps.

There were times when the food stamps had run out and it wasn’t the first of the month yet.  And I remember this time when my mom was at work.  My sister and I, we opened

the refrigerator, we opened the freezer, and there was very little there except for these two frozen burritos.  We had been washing the dishes.  And when I went to open my burrito, it fell into the soapy water and I couldn’t eat it.  And I remember my sister split her burrito with me. And that’s what we ate that day.

The frozen burrito drives her reporting to this day. Nikita Stewart goes on to say that she reports on hunger in America today for two reasons. One is to remove the stigma of shame from the people in line who lost their jobs and lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.  They did nothing wrong, they are casualties of this cruel season, and they deserve to be seen and fed.

The other is to raise money for food pantries.  She writes a piece with this title : “1.5 Million People Can’t Afford Food.  Pantries Are Their Lifeline.”    She appeals in the podcast and in her reporting to people’s nobler angels:  if you can afford to give money to food pantries, which are privately financed, so that the hungry can have groceries, please do.

The frozen burrito story. Not happy.  Talking to people lining up at 4:00 a.m. waiting for their bag or two of groceries. Not happy.  But responding to this deep unhappiness with deep morality—the morality of empathy, the morality of seeing, the morality of caring, the morality of doing, the morality of helping, the morality of mobilizing kindness that feeds the hungry and saves lives—that moral dimension leads, mysteriously enough, to happiness.

This Hanukkah, may you give yourself the gift of a deepened moral dimension.  Shabbat shalom.