| Outlook |

Why So Happy?

When it comes to looking toward the future, Israel is arguably the most optimistic country in the world


he recent World Happiness Report listed Israel as the fifth happiest country in the world. That finding was based on interviews and other data collected during what was surely one of the worst years in Israel’s history — one marked by six months of nonstop demonstrations against the government, which only came to an end (temporarily) on October 7, with the atrocities committed by Hamas.

Even in the best of times, Israel’s consistently high ranking in this annual study is puzzling, to say the least. No other country faces sworn enemies bent on its destruction on seven fronts, all of them on strings pulled by a soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, which has repeatedly expressed its goal to excise Israel from existence.

And yet when it comes to looking toward the future, Israel is arguably the most optimistic country in the world. Dan Senor and Saul Singer, in their new book The Genius of Israel: The Surprising Resilience of a Divided Naton in a Turbulent World, cite a separate worldwide survey asking adults whether they expected their children to be better off or worse off than them. The majority in almost every country answered “worse off,” and the number of pessimists skyrocketed between 2019 and 2022. Israelis, however, were the least pessimistic, and the already low number of pessimists declined during the period when it was rising everywhere else in the world.

But there is even more direct evidence of that optimism. Israel’s birthrate is nearly twice that of the other 39 OECD countries, and at 3.1 children per woman, Israel is the only country in the group with above-replacement levels of fertility. Only Israel does not face depopulation and an ever-aging population placing an unsupportable burden on the remaining young workers.

As I have noted numerous times, if one were to plot a graph of the industrialized nations with fertility rates on the vertical axis and suicide rates on the horizontal axis, Israel exists in the upper left quadrant all by itself — “a nation that shall dwell alone.”

The decision to have children reflects not only optimism about the future that those children will face, but also a feeling that one possesses something worth passing on to a new generation — i.e., that one is part of a chain that is worth preserving.

IN PART, ISRAEL’S high scores on the happiness scale and optimism charts, and its high fecundity, are functions of its large religious population. Approximately one-quarter of Israel Jews are Shabbos observant.

Religious people all over the world are more optimistic about the future, less inclined to fret about an impending climate disaster or the population bomb predicted by Paul Ehrlich in the 1968 work of that name (which would more accurately be described as the depopulation bomb today).

With theology comes a teleology, a theory of the world moving toward a goal set by its Creator. That being the case, religious people are unlikely to think that a benevolent Creator will allow mankind to come to a crash ending without reaching that goal. And that future orientation is particularly true in Torah thought, in which the present derives from the future: e.g., Avraham and Sarah have a child, Yitzchak, at an old age, because they are destined to be the father and mother of the Jewish People.

And religious people are, by and large, the most pro-natalist. As law professor Glenn Reynolds wrote recently, by the turn of the next century, the world will be increasingly dominated by descendants of today’s Amish, Orthodox Jews, evangelical Christians, traditional-rite Catholics, and fundamentalist Muslims.

It should be noted that the World Happiness Report cited above is primarily measuring eudaemonic happiness, a generalized sense of well-being, rather than hedonic happiness — i.e., fun. As Senor and Singer describe the Gallup questions, the subjects are asked to measure on a scale of one to ten how the life they are living measures against their ideal life.

And the most important element of eudaemonia is the feeling that one’s life has meaning. Emily Esfahani Smith, in The Power of Meaning, breaks that meaning down into four basic components: purpose, the feeling one is engaged in important tasks and making a positive difference in the world; transcendence, the feeling that one is part of something larger than oneself; social connection, the feeling of being part of an interdependent group that shares important values and experiences; and a coherent story, the ability to see one’s life as a whole, not just a series of random events. All of these elements are reinforced by a Torah life, as I have explained in the past.

BUT IT WOULD BE WRONG to attribute Israel’s high scores on the above rankings exclusively, or even primarily, to the religious population. While the chareidi population, for instance, has the highest birth rate, even Israel’s secular population’s birth rate would rank well above any other OECD country. Building a family remains the goal of virtually all Israelis. Typically, when an Israeli introduces himself, no matter how successful he is, the first thing he will tell you is the name of his spouse and the names of their children.

Young Israelis between 18 and 30 rank even higher than their older countrymen on the happiness scale — second in the world. At first glance, that would seem completely counterintuitive, given that they face an army burden unequalled by any other youth in the world, as well as a much greater likelihood of death or serious injury.

Yet rather than being a source of unhappiness, that service provides precisely what their contemporaries around the world are lacking — a sense of purpose and that their lives are meaningful. The over 100 percent reporting rate for reserve duty — meaning that many more reported for service than were called up — and the immediate return from abroad of many Israelis who have been living there for years attest to their feeling that Israel is worth fighting and perhaps dying for. As Rav Noach Weinberg used to say, “If you want to know what is worth living for, ask yourself what you would be willing to die for.”

The IDF is also a key bulwark of Israeli social solidarity. Nowhere is our interdependence so clear as in a combat unit, where one’s life may depend upon the performance of a comrade and his on yours. Close to 50 years ago, I took a bus tour of the Sinai with a group of young Israelis approximately my age, almost all of whom had finished their regular service. What amazed me — a spoiled suburban kid, who was not even a Boy Scout — was their ability to quickly organize the preparation and cooking of meals, with each one assigned a specific task. And I also noticed how anyone who attempted to shirk their responsibility or somehow evade duty was quickly ostracized.

BUT I THINK there is something deeper, almost unconscious among secular Israelis, that underlies the national sense of purpose: the awareness of being part of a people that not only has a future, but also a very long past. While that past has not always been a romp through sunny fields, nevertheless, we, the Jews, are still here, our identity intact, when all those who sought to destroy us are long gone.

Both Israeli Jews and those living in chutz l’Aretz are experiencing a feeling that they’ve rejoined Jewish history after October 7 and that that history is not a natural phenomenon. It is inexplicable in naturalistic terms that the most savage, inhuman assault on human beings in recent memory on October 7 has unleashed a torrent of anti-Semitic mobs on Jews — the victims of those assaults — around the world and especially in the citadels of Western intellectual life.

To a degree seldom experienced, Israeli Jews have a feeling of being surrounded and all alone. The two presidential candidates in America are both sharply critical of Israel: one for not finishing Hamas quicker and more decisively, the other for trying to do so at all. The British foreign minister David Cameron threatens Israel with an arms cut-off if it doesn’t allow the Red Cross access to Hamas prisoners. Yet he has never shown any concern with the Red Cross’s failure to deliver critically needed medicines to Israeli hostages held by Hamas, or shown much concern for Hamas’s refusal to even identify which hostages are still alive and which have perished.

French president Emmanuel Macron warns Israel that it will be guilty of a war crime if it moves Gazans now temporarily housed in tents, prior to attacking Hamas’s remaining brigades in Rafah, though the US is demanding of Israel plans for doing precisely that. In what alternate universe could moving civilians out of harm’s way be a war crime? But the very stupidity of the charges against Israel only strengthens the perception that those basically lobbying to leave Hamas in control are moved by motivations both ancient and sinister.

Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l noted that Sinai and sulam (ladder) have the same gematria. Yet they represent diametrical opposites. The Dor Haflagah, the Generation of Separation, attempted to build a ladder that would reach unto the heavens, for the purpose of waging battle to separate heaven and earth into autonomous realms. The Torah was given at Sinai to join heaven and earth, through fulfillment of the Torah.

Though mankind lost the power to wage war against Hashem when it was divided into 70 nations, speaking 70 languages, those nations continue to seek the destruction of the Jews, who connect the upper and lower realms.

The power of the hatred directed at us, then, is a measure of the importance of the mission assigned to us. And the importance of that mission is the assurance of Hashem’s love for His people and that He will continue to protect His lamb among 70 wolves.

Again, this is only dimly perceived by most Israeli Jews. But it is expressed in the determination to carry on in the face of hatred and isolation, and to keep the story of G-d’s people alive to its ultimate destination. And the greater the sense of mission, the greater the happiness of knowing that we have been entrusted with the greatest mission of all by the Creator: bringing knowledge of Him to the world.

OUR ANCESTORS rejoiced twofold upon leaving Egypt. First, for release from the house of bondage, and for Hashem’s love for them manifest in all the miracles He did for them in Egypt and at the Sea. And second, in the knowledge that those miracles were only the prelude to the great mission to which they were marching at Sinai.

As we sing Hallel at the Seder table, may we too rejoice in reliving all the miracles of our long history and in our knowledge of the great mission with which we have been entrusted.

Chag kasher v’sameiach.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1008. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

Oops! We could not locate your form.