241 years ago today, the founders of the United States signed the Declaration of Independence. In it’s most poplar line, the document states
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Many know that the founders were religious people. But what do Jewish sources say about these ideas?
What is the value of life? Although it may be difficult to gauge, there are sources that indicate how we view Life:
Liberty is also an elusive term, and difficult to define:
We like to sing the statement of Rav Nachman of Breslov: “Mitzvah Gedolah L’hiyot BeSimcha”, but what about primary sources?
ושמרתם את־חקתי ואת־משפטי אשר יעשה אתם האדם וחי בהם אני יהוה
You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which man shall live: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:5)
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 74) learns a specific guideline from this verse:
כל עבירות שבתורה אם אומרין לאדם עבור ואל תהרג יעבור ואל יהרג חוץ מעבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים
With regard to all other transgressions in the Torah, if a person is told: Transgress this prohibition and you will not be killed, he may transgress that prohibition and not be killed, because the preserving of his own life overrides all of the Torah’s prohibitions. This is true for all prohibitions except for those of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed. Concerning those prohibitions.
As important as mitzvot are, we can see how valuable life is, as it overrides those prescriptions we hold dear.
אֵין לְךָ בֶן חוֹרִין אֶלָּא מִי שֶׁעוֹסֵק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה
There is no free man except one that involves himself in Torah.
The concept of freedom as mentioned in this mishnah (Avos 6:2) shows that liberty means opportunity- not to do whatever one likes- but to make the most of one’s life, to maximize one’s potential. In religious terms, that means engaging with the Torah.
We see this concept in the paradigm of Jewish liberation- the Exodus story (Lev. 11:45):
כִּ֣י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֗ה הַֽמַּעֲלֶ֤ה אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְיֹ֥ת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים וִהְיִיתֶ֣ם קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אָֽנִי׃
For I the LORD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.
Liberty, in these terms, is not only to be unshackled, but an unshackling for the sake of responsible living- An opportunity not to be wasted.
Happiness is assumed to be a positive trait, but it depends what the happiness is towards (Eccl 7:4):
לֵ֤ב חֲכָמִים֙ בְּבֵ֣ית אֵ֔בֶל וְלֵ֥ב כְּסִילִ֖ים בְּבֵ֥ית שִׂמְחָֽה׃
Wise men are drawn to a house of mourning, and fools to a house of rejoicing.
At the same time, we must find the joy in our service of Gd, as Hashem says He’ll punish us… (Deut. 28:47):
תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־עָבַ֙דְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְט֣וּב לֵבָ֑ב מֵרֹ֖ב כֹּֽל׃
Because you would not serve the LORD your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.
Both of these sources speak of happiness, but very different kinds. Happiness is an expression of what matters to the individual. One who enjoys frivolity is looked down upon, yet one who rejoices in the service of Gd is not only commendable, but as we see above- it’s necessary.
In fact, there may even be a mitzvah to be happy. To find out, join the Kollel presentation at Day of Discovery- August 27, 2017 @ JCC @ 9:30