Man’s (Futile) Search for Happiness
Rabbi Reuven Mann
The Book of Bereishit which we have just begun to read describes the creation of man and the development of human society. It contains the story of human failure and sinfulness.
From the very outset we encounter man’s disobedience even in the paradisiacal habitat in which he was placed. Virtually all of the players are guilty. This can be seen in the Garden of Eden where man had everything that he needed at his disposal. He did not have to toil to earn his bread but could spend all his time and utilize all his energy in the pursuit and enjoyment of G-d’s infinite wisdom which was incorporated into the natural order. In fact he studied the various animals and “named” them which means he classified them according to their nature and character.
Still the life of man was not perfect or idyllic for he lacked a “helpmate opposite him.” That is to say he had an unfulfilled need for a certain type of relationship which was essential to his attaining a state of happiness. The satisfaction of this need required a new act of creation which was willingly obliged by “He who had spoken and the world came into being.”
In effect, “man needs and Hashem creates.” This teaches us about the importance of human fulfillment in the scheme of things. It is the Will of the Creator as manifested in the Creation that man should have all that he requires in order to achieve the purpose for which he was given life.
However, the satisfaction of man’s need for the woman carries with it a great danger. By virtue of this relationship he becomes vulnerable to her influence. This can have tragic consequences as can be seen in the story of the first sin which is all about seduction.
The woman’s encounter with the snake led to disaster. This primitive creature had great intelligence but no moral compass and sought to destroy mankind. He managed to seduce the woman to partake of the sensuous pleasures contained in the forbidden fruit and she ate of it and “she gave it to the man with her and he did eat.”
When Hashem confronted Adam and asked if he had eaten the prohibited food he replied, “The woman that You placed here with me, she gave me if the fruit and I did eat.”
The Rabbis asserted that this statement contains the sin of “ Kaffuy Tov” denial of the good. Indirectly, Adam blamed Hashem for his own moral failure and displayed ingratitude for the “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” whose advent he had originally greeted with such enthusiasm.
In considering the first sin one must ask, what made the forbidden so alluring? Or perhaps we should inquire, why couldn’t they be happy with all the things that were permitted? After all there was no shortage of things they could enjoy as Hashem had said: “From all the trees of the Garden you may eat but from the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the Gan do not eat from it….” Yet it seems that instead of focusing on the many items that they were allowed to partake of they became fixated on the single object that was rendered off limits.
The inability of man to find contentment in the multitude of opportunities available to him haunts the human race to this very day. We live in the most advanced material and technologically-adept civilization in human history. But has this led to an increase in human contentment?
It does not seem so if the proliferation of drug and other addictions as well as psychological illness, depression and suicide are valid indicators. Mankind especially in the advanced western societies is in the grip of a misery crisis in which people are dissatisfied with every significant aspect of life. Why is man so unhappy in the midst of supreme material wealth and endless opportunities for carnal indulgence?
The antediluvian world was similar to our own. The Rabbis assert that prior to the Flood, man was the most powerful creature on earth living close to a thousand years and never suffering illness. The superior climatic conditions caused the earth to yield fruits and vegetables far superior in nutritional qualities to anything we have known. Man could travel great distances in a short time and reigned supreme over all the beasts of the field.
But this did not lead to a state of satisfaction. Rather the strong exploited the weak, even though there was more than enough for everyone. And there was a breakdown of the basic sexual restrictions that were the hallmark of civilized society. Scripture aptly characterizes the spiritual corruption of the generation of the Flood: “The Land became corrupted before Hashem and was filled with violence.” Blessed with great power and the richest resources the society of the Flood could not find genuine human contentment without exercising dominion over others and exploiting them.
This runs counter to contemporary liberal left-wing philosophy which is rooted in the Marxist doctrine. That gloomy ideology deludes itself into believing that material improvement of the human condition is the key to societal perfection. That is certainly not the message that emerges from a study of Bereishit which clearly associates material abundance with moral decay and corruption.
The approach of the Torah to the matter of Tikkun Olam can be found in the verse regarding the creation of man: “And G-d created the human in His image, in the image of Hashem created He him, male and female created He them.” The mistake of Marxism is that it defines man as an instinctual animal with a superior intelligence whose happiness consists in the provision of his physical needs.
But the Torah rejects this dreary outlook and asserts that the physical is but a means to an end which is the perfection of his soul. The path to happiness lies with the nurturing of the Neshama through learning, pursuit of justice and righteous deeds. The more man diminishes his need of the physical and pours his energy into spiritual pursuits the happier he becomes.
And one who views all his fellow humans as beings who have been created in Hashem’s image has an intense respect for all people and a desire to help them. They are repelled by the notion of exploiting or harming them.
The Bereishit narratives and the history of the human race make it clear that for all the progress mankind has made it has failed completely to discover what is the purpose of human life. Instead it has established false ideals which when pursued leads to great harm and dissatisfaction. The Torah ideals of wisdom, mastery of the emotions and humble Avodat Hashem are the avenues of peace and the well-being of man and society. May we merit to attain them.