What is the secret to happiness?
So many people are dissatisfied with their lives. Unfortunately it is part of human nature that we are not content with what we have; no matter what blessings we have, we are always looking for more. This pursuit of something else, something outside ourselves that we think will satisfy us, can actually ruin our lives and destroy everything we have.
The danger of Korach’s rebellion
Throughout history there have been people who, in pursuit of something extra or different and special, actually lost everything in the process. The Talmud lists tragic figures who never felt they had enough and always wanted more and who, in pursuit of more, destroyed everything they did have. One of the classic examples the Talmud cites is Korach. This week’s portion deals with Korach’s great rebellion against the authority of his cousins, Moses and Aaron. He questioned not only their authority, but, more significantly, their mandate from G-d. G-d had to declare publicly that Moses and Aaron were indeed following His mandate in every decision they had made. This was very important to G-d because in supporting their mandate, He was establishing the very foundations of our faith, which is based on the revelation at Mount Sinai and the belief that all of the Torah was subsequently given to Moses by G-d. At Mount Sinai, the people heard the voice of G-d but only for the Ten Commandments – the rest of the information was conveyed by G-d to Moses, who passed it on to the people. Thus, anyone who questioned the mandate of Moses and Aaron was, in fact, questioning the very foundations of our faith.
This is why, explains Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Korach’s rebellion was crushed in such a dramatic way. As we know, Korach challenged Moses and Moses said: “Come tomorrow morning with your incense and let G-d decide between us.” They arrived the next morning with their incense and the earth opened up and swallowed Korach and his followers. Rabbi Hirsch says that unlike other instances where Moses was the first to come forward and defend the people after they had sinned, in this instance, Moses did not intervene and ask G-d to forgive them. The rebellion was crushed in such a miraculous way – the earth opening up and swallowing Korach and his followers – so that it would be remembered for all time. A dramatic end to the rebellion was necessary in order to demonstrate publicly the authenticity of Moses’ mandate. G-d had to make Moses’ authority clear and unequivocal for all generations so that everybody would know that the Torah comes from G-d and that Moses did not fabricate any of it. As Rabbi Hirsch explains, had the authenticity of the Divine origins of the Torah been questioned in that generation – the generation that received the Torah – the foundations of our faith would have been weakened. Hence the rebellion had to be crushed in such a dramatic way.
Pursuing the unattainable
Korach lost everything; he, his family, his property – everything he had was wiped off the face of the earth. We can understand the implications of this rebellion as regards the principles of faith and our belief in the divinity of the Torah, but there is also the element of human tragedy in this event. According to Talmudic tradition, Korach was a very wealthy person, a successful, charismatic and influential leader. He lost all of that because he wanted more; what he had was not enough for him because he was jealous of his cousins Moses and Aaron and wanted to be the leader, the high priest. In pursuit of getting more, he lost everything.
The Talmud in Tractate Sota, on page 9a and 9b, gives the classic example of a person who wants what he is not entitled to and loses everything in the process: the adulterer. The adulterer wants somebody who does not belong to him and who, from a moral point of view, he is not entitled to be with. In pursuit of this desire, he loses everything. This is indeed a human tragedy, when people are disloyal to their spouses and to G-d and commit adultery, thus destroying families and communities and wreaking havoc in peoples’ lives.
The Talmud then brings the example of the Nachash HaKadmoni, the original serpent who enticed Adam and Eve to sin. The original serpent was a different creature to the snake we know today. It was a creature who had kingship over the animal kingdom and subsequently lost that kingship because of the sin; hence the snake’s curse was to crawl on its belly. According to Talmudic tradition, the snake was jealous of Adam and he coveted Eve. It was in pursuit of Eve that the snake was downgraded and lost everything. Similarly with Cain and Abel: Cain had so much but he wanted more, and because of his jealousy and his ambition to be better than his brother and more acceptable to G-d, he killed Abel. Balaam, the great prophet who had so much prophetic wisdom and insight, pursued even more greatness and lost everything. Avshalom, King David’s son, was not content with what he had and wanted more, going to the extent of staging a coup against his father and, in so doing, lost everything.
Another example brought is that of Haman, the evil Haman we read about in the Book of Esther, who was the prime minister of a vast empire, who had wealth and power, and yet he says, “none of this is worth anything to me when I see that Mordechai does not bow down to me”. Here is the tragedy of the human condition: wealth, prestige and power are worthless because there is one unattainable desire.
Focusing on what we do have
Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, the Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, explains that people can become so obsessed with what they don’t have that it ruins everything they do have. When the Talmud says that when a person wants something they don’t have, it destroys everything else, this is not only on a practical level but on an emotional level as well. The person cannot enjoy the blessings he does have because he always wants more. Haman had so much recognition, so much honour, power and wealth and yet none of it was worth anything to him. He didn’t say: “I have a lot but I want more.” The human condition is such that when we obsess about what we don’t have, that dominates what we do have and we can’t even begin to enjoy it. Haman went on a blind pursuit to destroy Mordechai and all the Jewish people, and in the process lost everything – he was executed, his sons were executed and nothing was left of him.
The lesson for us in all of these examples is that we need to focus on what we do have. Moreover, we need to define ourselves not by other people and what is going on around us, but rather by internal definitions of success and self-worth.
Internal and external definitions
There is a famous Mishna in Pirkei Avot, chapter 4, Mishna 1, that says: “Who is the wise person? One who learns from all people. Who is mighty? One who conquers his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot. Who is honoured? One who gives honour to other people.” These four markers of success – wisdom, strength, wealth and honour – are things that we all want. But the Mishna questions the conventional understanding of these things. Conventional wisdom maintains that a person’s wisdom depends on degrees and IQ; that a person who is powerful is someone who can wield power – be it political, military or physical; that one’s wealth depends on the amount of money one has; and that a person of honour is someone accorded honour by others.
The Mishna turns conventional wisdom on its head and says no, there are other definitions for these markers. The Maharal of Prague explains that in each of these definitions, the Mishna seeks an absolute definition and not a relative one. Conventional wisdom defines all of these attributes in relative terms. IQ and degrees are relative; someone who can wield physical power – that’s also relative. Wealth, too, is relative; in a poverty-stricken society, a wealthy person might be someone who earns very little but still has some money, while in a wealthier society, it can be defined by a house or a private jet. So, too, the definition of honour and fame, it is not absolute.
Absolute definitions of self-worth
The Mishna is looking for an absolute definition, not a reference to other people, teaching us that we need to have a sense of self-worth and satisfaction with our lot in life that is not contingent on the world out there or what other people say about us. The Mishna tells us how to achieve this. It says: “Who is wise?” Someone who loves knowledge so much so that he has the humility to learn from all people. This is an internal, absolute definition of knowledge, not relative to anybody else. The Mishna continues: “Who is powerful? One who conquers his evil inclination.” Someone who has self-control and conquers his temper, his jealousy, or his physical desires that sometimes lead him to wrong-doing – that is real strength. It is not relative to anybody else but is internal. The third character trait in the Mishna: “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot,” shows us that if we feel we have what we need – that is wealth, objective wealth, not relative to somebody else. A person can be worth billions of rands, but if he feels he is missing another billion then he is poor because he does not have what he needs. Wealth is defined as being happy with what you have, and that is an objective, internal definition. The fourth character trait in the Mishna is: “Who is honoured? One who gives honour to other people.” If we define honour by what other people give, it’s relative. The only absolute definition of honour is one where a person feels satisfied enough with himself to say: “I have the capacity to give honour and recognition to others.”
The common denominator of all of these character traits is that their true definition is internally based, not external. This is the most powerful definition of all because our sense of self-worth and satisfaction with life are not dependent on others or external circumstances that are beyond our control. This is what Korach lacked. Korach was brilliant, had wealth and kavod. He had everything, but because he defined these things in terms of other people, he had nothing because he had no satisfaction, no sense of “it’s enough, I can appreciate the blessings that G-d has given me”. So although he had everything, he actually had nothing.
Judaism teaches us that we must be grounded in ourselves and know that at the end of the day, the mark of a great person is internal, in the eyes of G-d. We must always strive to improve our lives – indeed, G-d requires that we not rely on miracles, as He works through the natural world and we must put in our efforts – but we must realise that whatever we have is what we are meant to have. This belief enables us to have a sense of being satisfied with what we have; this is the ultimate wealth.
The quest for honour is never-ending
One of the most interesting parts of this Mishna is actually the last part: “Who has honour? One who gives honour to other people.” Of all these desires, honour is the hardest to satisfy. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz, the great Mir Rosh Yeshiva, says that a person’s desire for honour and recognition is unlimited. It is one of the most insatiable human drives – the ego, the self-importance in the eyes of other people – and a person can never be satisfied, no matter what they are given.
This was the driving force in Korach, and this is something we must work on in ourselves – not to chase after kavod because not only is it the wrong thing to do, but in so doing, we are setting ourselves up for a life of misery. The Talmud states that a person who runs away from honour, honour comes to them; and a person who pursues honour, honour runs away from them. The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yosef Yehuda Leib Bloch, explains that when one pursues honour, one is almost demanding the recognition from other people. The more one asks people for it, the less they want to give it. The Telzer Rav explains that when someone puts pressure on others to give him something that they hold to be within their discretion, they will actually recoil. For example, we know it is appropriate to tip a waiter. If the waiter were to say “give me my tip”, the natural response of the patron would be resistance. (Whether that’s right or wrong is beside the point; the point here is that this is human nature. When something discretionary is demanded, people resist.) So it is with the pursuit of honour: the more it is demanded, the less people want to give it. This is why a person who is in constant pursuit of it is actually setting himself up for failure and misery in life, because the more he wants it, the more he demands it, the more it is going to elude him and he will never be satisfied.
We must not look for kavod for ourselves but find ways of giving it to other people; as the Mishna says: “Give honour to others.” There is such a deep human need for recognition, and even though we need to be above honour and kavod for ourselves, we must give it lavishly to others and not say, well, that person should get over his need for honour; we should give it freely.
The importance of giving honour to others
Author of a modern book on parenting, Rabbi Dov Brezak, said that parents need to give a child three to four compliments every single day. This applies not only to children but to everyone in our family – our spouse, brothers and sisters – we must give lots of compliments and make them feel good. The more kavod we give to people, the better they will feel. This in turn will build warm and strong families and communities. The kavod and recognition that we are able to give others is the foundation of any human interaction and there is no person of greater honour than one who is prepared to give it. The Midrash says that this is why G-d is called “the King of Kavod” – because He gives it to other people. If we want to be truly honourable people, we must give kavod to others.
Sometimes people do crazy things in search of honour and recognition, often ruining their own lives and the lives of those around them in the process. If we would give it more freely, more generously and more often, people wouldn’t have to do such foolish things in order to get kavod. We have to work on ourselves to rise above it, to not need it so much, but at the same time, to give it lavishly to others.
The Mishna in Pirkei Avot says that jealousy, desire and the pursuit of kavod remove a person from this world. The relentless pursuit of these three things destroys a person’s life and so we must rise above them. Life is a constant journey of becoming a more developed, more elevated human being who is able to rise above these destructive desires. This is the secret to happiness: being satisfied with one’s lot, which is dependent on faith in G-d and realising that whatever we have is what we are meant to have. Happiness also results from developing our character and a sense of self-worth such that our wisdom, wealth, strength and honour are defined internally. Only then will we live with a feeling that what we have is enough.