How do we find real happiness in the world? This is something that everyone is searching for. Part of the lesson lies in the concept of helping one another and appreciating what we have.
We all want happiness, but it’s an elusive ideal. What, really, is happiness? And how do we achieve it?
This week’s portion, Behar-Bechukotai, contains an important insight into happiness. In discussing the laws of charity, the verse says: “If your brother becomes destitute and struggles with poverty you shall give him strength and he will live with you.” What does this phrase, “and he will live with you” mean? Our sages explain that rich and poor exist in an interdependent, mutually beneficial relationship; the rich person gives to the poor person, and the poor person affords the rich person the opportunity to do a mitzvah.
There is an interesting Midrash that talks about the resentment some wealthy people feel towards the poor. They feel they have worked hard for their money and therefore owe nothing to those who are poor and may have shirked their responsibility to contribute to society and earn a living.
And it is true – the mitzvah to earn a living is equally as binding as the mitzvah to give to those in need. The Talmud rules that one should work hard and earn little rather than take charity. Unfortunately, however, some people are in a position where they depend on charity – they have no alternative; and it is incumbent on the haves to ensure the have-nots meet their basic needs.
Sometimes people get their mitzvot confused. The wealthy concern themselves with the needy’s mitzvah to earn a living, and the needy concern themselves with the wealthy’s obligation to give. This is a recipe for a dysfunctional society. In truth, we should worry only about our own obligations and responsibilities. (This is also a guiding principle in marriage, and in relationships in general.)
True happiness is appreciating what we have
The Dubna Maggid discusses why the rich person resents the poor. Obviously, there is resentment at having to part with one’s hard-earned money, not realising it is a G-d-given gift and the opportunity to fulfil an incredible mitzvah generously. But it goes deeper. At the heart of this resentment, says the Dubna Maggid, is a deep dissatisfaction.
There’s a misconception that the wealthier you are, the happier you are; that contentment is in proportion to the extent of your possessions, and that being able to buy whatever your heart desires is the ultimate gateway to happiness.
The Dubna Maggid says that, in fact, the opposite is true. The more we have, the more accustomed to it we become, and the more we begin to take it for granted. In other words, the more we have of something, the less we appreciate it. We become dulled to our blessings. It becomes increasingly difficult to summon gratitude, and, ultimately, to feel any happiness at all.
To learn to appreciate what we have is our life’s work – it is the true gateway to happiness. The Talmud trains us in this mindset, saying we should give thanks to our Creator “for every breath of air that we take”. We don’t stop to think for a moment what a miracle it is that we can just breathe. It only hits home when we see a person on a ventilator, for example. But we need to strive to live with that sense of appreciation all the time.
The miracles of nature
The workings of nature are miraculous, so endlessly wondrous. And yet, we tend not to take note of them. Why don’t we appreciate the sun, and the seasons, and the seas and skies? Simply because they’re always there. We take them for granted. If we would only pause for a moment and reflect on them, we’d be overcome with gratitude and overwhelmed with wonder.
This idea is expressed at one of the pivotal moments of Jewish history – the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. It was the greatest miracle the Jews had ever seen. Yet their response seems strange. “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him – the G-d of my father, and I will exalt Him.” The Dubna Maggid asks, why did they refer to G-d as “the G-d of my father”, given that in the previous generations, no one had experienced miracles like the splitting of the sea?
The Dubna Maggid explains that in one breath, they were acknowledging the magnitude of the miracle they were privileged to witness, and in the other, they were saying that all of nature is in fact a miracle; that what their fathers had witnessed in previous generations was no less wondrous.
Ultimately, the only difference between nature and miracles is the frequency with which they occur. This is why, says the Talmud, we refer to rain in the second blessing of the Amidah – the same blessing that refers to G-d’s revival of the dead. Though the first is commonplace, rain and the revival of the dead are equally miraculous.
The difference between physical and spiritual enjoyment
The Dubna Maggid cites an amazing passage in the Talmud (Succah 46), which delineates a key distinction between physical and spiritual reality. “The way of flesh and blood is that something which is empty holds contents and something which is full cannot contain anything. The way of the Holy One, Blessed Be He is that something which is full holds contents but when it is empty it does not.” So the more we have of the physical world, the less we want it; and the less we have of it, the more we want it. We appreciate a good meal when we are hungry and a glass of water when we are thirsty. But if we have eaten or drunk too much, the food and drink lose their appeal and we don’t want them anymore.
Thus, the way to properly enjoy the world is to do so within limitations. In fact, so many of the laws of the Torah prescribe a framework – a set of limitations – so that we can fully enjoy the pleasures of the physical world.
Saturated with pleasure
Take Shabbos, for example. In the Shabbos evening service, we say that Hashem gave Shabbos to “a people saturated with pleasure”. The Dubna Maggid says that Hashem structured Shabbos in such a way that we can indulge in delicious food and drink, elegant clothes and celebration, while during the week we do not do this to the same extent, and this way we truly enjoy it. The same principle applies to the Torah laws of marriage, of food and drink, and many other areas of physical enjoyment. When there is excess, physical pleasures lose their intensity; when there are boundaries, they maintain it.
This, says the Dubna Maggid, is the root cause of the resentment the rich sometimes feel towards the poor. One of the great challenges of wealth is to appreciate blessings when there is an excess of them. A poor person, however, has the ability to appreciate even a simple meal, and relish every morsel, because it isn’t readily available. Paradoxically, sometimes the poor have more because they have less, and the rich have less because they have more.
All things good – in moderation
As we saw from the Talmudic passage above, the opposite is true when it comes to spiritual pleasure. When we are full, we want more and when we are empty, we don’t.
Learning Torah, connecting with the Divine – the more we have of this, the more we want; and the less we have, the less we want. If we don’t invest in spiritual pursuits, if we have no connection to Judaism, to Torah learning and mitzvot, then the soul does not even begin to thirst for them. We do not know what we are missing and therefore do not seek it. But if we devote our lives to learning Torah, to connecting with Hashem, to davening and mitzvot and acts of kindness, we never become satiated. We just want more.
G-d has wired the human psyche in alignment with the dictates of the Torah. The greater the limitations, the more enjoyment we can derive. This is how the Torah gives us access to the physical world – through a framework of limitations. When it comes to the spiritual world, however, the more we have, the more we want. Therefore, Torah directs us to devote as much time and energy as we can to Torah, so that we can benefit to the greatest extent.
When it comes to the physical world, as long as it is within the framework of the limitations of the Torah, it will lead to real enjoyment and pleasure. When it comes to the spiritual world, we have to throw ourselves into it – the more we invest, the more inspired we get. You often see people who seem so inspired with their Judaism and you think to yourself, how did they get so inspired? The answer is that they threw themselves into it, and their thirst was never quenched.
The simple lesson here is that it doesn’t matter who we are – wealthy or poor, healthy or sick; whatever our station in life, the key to happiness is to appreciate what we have.