Shelach: Virtu(e)al Happiness

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Are the behavioral constraints of Torah compatible with American ideals of freedom? 


This week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekah, states: 


וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְוֹ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

“… recall all the commandments of the LORD, and observe them; so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urges. (Numbers 15:39, JPS translation).


This seems to be a commandment prohibiting, or certainly curtailing, what, according to the American Declaration of Independence, are two God-endowed unalienable rights: liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  


America’s foundational values as described in the Declaration thus seem to differ markedly from Jewish values described in the Torah.  America’s preeminent value is individual freedom, through which one may apparently pursue one’s own brand of happiness, whatever that may be, so long as not illegal.  


Judaism’s preeminent value is entirely different: holiness, i.e., doing “the right and the good.” (Deuteronomy 6:18).  Moreover, for Judaism, acting morally is an obligation, not a choice.  


It may seem difficult to reconcile these radically different primary values … the freedom to pursue happiness vs. the obligation to act morally.  


But did the American Founders really mean that liberty and the freedom to pursue one’s own idea of happiness vitiates any obligation to act virtuously?  


Consider these representative statements[1]


George Washington: “Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”


Benjamin Franklin: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”


James Madison: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical [imaginary] idea.”


Thomas Jefferson: “No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and... their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice...These are the inculcations necessary to render a people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.”


Samuel Adams: “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of the people whose manners are universally corrupt. He therefore is the truest friend of the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue.”


Patrick Henry: “A vitiated [impure] state of morals, a corrupted public conscience, is incompatible with freedom.” 


John Adams: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our constitution was made only for a moral and righteous people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”


The American Founders, then, did not conceive of “liberty and the pursue of happiness” as the freedom to, as the Torah puts it, “follow your heart and eyes.”  Quite the opposite.  The Founders recognized virtue as indispensable to a free society comprised of people pursuing happiness.  Regrettably, most Americans seem unaware of this.  That is perhaps unsurprising, though, given that our political leaders of both parties seldom, if ever, discuss it.  I also wonder whether it is taught to our children and grandchildren in their American history, civics, and similar classes, and to immigrants in citizenship classes.  I’m doubtful, as the importance of virtue to the American Founders was not impressed upon me until graduate school. 


Washington, Jefferson, Adams and other political leaders of their generation recognized that morality must be cultivated and striven for.  Judaism’s highest value is to create and cultivate morality.  Thus, Jewish values and – when correctly understood, American values – do not conflict. 


Freedom and happiness are not goals in and of themselves, but rather are outcomes only attainable through our individual and collective choices to do the right and the good.   Following our hearts and minds – emphasizing our “rights” and not our responsibilities to others -- may be ego gratifying and superficially enjoyable, but they bring neither true freedom nor happiness.   


For these, we should heed Proverbs 4:23-27:


More than all that you guard, guard your heart, 

For it is the source of life. 

Put crooked speech away from you; 

Keep devious talk far from you. 

Let your eyes look forward, 

Your gaze be straight ahead. 

Survey the course you take, 

And all your ways will prosper. 

Do not swerve to the right or the left; 

Keep your feet from evil.  (JPS translation).  


The American Founders and the Torah agree: The pursuit of happiness necessitates, and, in fact is, the pursuit of holiness.  



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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3