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Pursuit of Other People’s Happiness

on Friday, March 29 2013. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
The Declaration of Independence grants us freedom and liberty, incredible blessings that we benefit from every single day while living in this great country.  Interestingly, the emphasis is on a liberty that allows for the pursuit of happiness.   Indeed, the capacity to serve our own interests, pursue our own needs and satisfy our own happiness is a critical component of freedom and one that we must never take for granted.

However, as we continue to celebrate Pesach and with it the Jewish notion of freedom, it occurs to me that our tradition places a different emphasis on how freedom is to be channeled.   

“Kol dichfin yeisei v’yeichol – all who are hungry let them come and eat.”  We begin the Seder by expressing an invitation to anyone who needs.  Before we indulge in an evening celebrating our emancipation and triumph, we must give thought to those that don’t have.  The invitation seems disingenuous as we are already seated at our tables with the doors and windows closed and nobody to hear us.  Many explain that the purpose of the invitation is as much about the people already seated and their need to express graciousness as it is about hosting an indigent individual.  

In our tradition, freedom means the pursuit of other people’s happiness.  Freedom means the ability to make choices that can positively and meaningfully impact others.  A slave cannot share, donate or host.   When we are stingy, self centered, and unwilling to share with others, we electively become enslaved.  When we generously share what we have with others, we attain the highest levels of freedom.

Perhaps that is why there is a great association between giving and Pesach.  The halacha demands that we provide four cups of wine for every Jew, no matter what their economic status.  Thirty days before the holiday, we have a custom of donating to ma’os chittim, the fund to provide food and necessities for those in need.

One of the highest levels of giving is doing so anonymously.  One truly sets oneself free when they give with no expectation in return.  This year, I was approached in a number of remarkable ways that are worth sharing.  In each of these instances, the person was not solicited, but simply on their own wanted to have an impact on others.

  • Someone showed up at my office with ten pounds of hand made shmurah matzah to be distributed to those that can’t afford to buy on their own.
  • Another individual came with twenty-five $50 gift cards to Kosher Marketplace to be given out to those that need.
  • A few families contacted the Shul to let us know they have room at their Sedarim and if anyone needs a place they are happy to host them.
  • Two separate people called to tell us that they would sponsor someone who can’t afford to go to the Shul Seder, but needs a place to go.
  • Someone gave money specifically to purchase new shoes and clothing for the children of families currently on Tomchei Shabbos.

These ordinary acts of chesed are truly extraordinary.  But chesed is not limited to those that lack financially.   Any one of us can find ourselves in a position of needing someone else’s chesed.  On Chol Ha’Moed, my family and I spent one afternoon in a local fun park.   At the end of an exhausting few hours of fantastic rides and fun, we made our way back to our car.  There was only one problem.  I reached into my pocket and there was no car key.  

Thank God everyone remained calm and I decided to walk back into the park on the off chance that I would find my key.  I traced my steps back inside, but no luck.  I walked up to the ticket counter wanting to ask if they have a lost and found, but before I could even get the words out of mouth, the young man held up a key and said, “Are you looking for this?”  

Overjoyed, I took the key and asked the guy if he knew who turned it in or where they found it.  He thought for a moment and said, “nope, don’t remember, just some guy stopped by and handed it in.”  Whoever saw my key could have just as easily ignored it and kept walking, or worse, taken it to the parking lot to see if he could find the car it would open.  Instead, some anonymous person whose identity I will never know did what for him was a small favor, but what for me was a game changer.  

Freedom means the ability to pursue other people’s happiness and to bring joy to those around us.   Let’s embrace our freedom and use it to help others.  In the end, few things can bring you yourself greater happiness. 

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