The Clean Little Secret
By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Florida
Strolling in the park one day, a woman stumbled upon a precious stone. Before she could place the gleaming object into in her bag, she was approached by a vagabond seeking alms. Nothing the woman was willing to give him seemed to satisfy the needy stranger.
The kind woman finally turned to the poor man in dismay: “What do you want?” What will make you happy? The beggar pointed to the diamond in her hand: “That’s what I want.”
With little hesitation or ado the woman placed the diamond into his hand: “Here,” she said “It’s all yours.” After a generous exchange of farewells, they were both on their way.
Sometime later, the beggar shows up at the woman’s door. “What can I do for you,” asked the woman, as she answered the door?
I have come to return the diamond said the man: “It’s not what I want.”
“What then do you want’” asked the perplexed woman.
“I want something much more precious than a diamond,” he said.
“But I have nothing more to give,” cried the woman.
“Of course you do,” replied the man. “What I want is your giving heart; it is far more precious than any diamond in the world.”
“Do not all men desire happiness?” This rhetorical question was posed by Socrates to his students. The response was unanimous: “There is no one who does not!”
Socrates was clearly on to something. If there is a single common denominator that unites humanity, it is the quest for happiness. Despite the myriad ways at which we come at it, happiness is the central objective of human existence – the essential and core objective for which all humans strive.
Centuries of pursuit notwithstanding, the search for this coveted attribute endures. A visit to any bookstore or library reveals the copious range of contemporary works that deal with this subject. The list includes titles like, The Science of Happiness, The Art of Happiness, The Pursuit of Happiness, Finding Contentment, A Journey to Contentment, In Quest of Contentment and on it goes. There are actually dozens upon dozens of volumes that wrestle with this pivotal issue.
The founding fathers have gone so far as to insert the “pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence, as an inalienable “right.” They have, in fact, set man’s freedom to pursue happiness, along with life and liberty, as the Divine cornerstone and destiny of our nation.
To the founders, the ability for citizens to pursue and achieve happiness is the gauge by which the effectiveness and morality of the state are measured. Yet, while certainly not overrated, happiness does appear rather obscure and elusive; elusive perhaps, because of its obscurity. What, after all, is happiness?
Some people confuse happiness with pleasure; this is obviously a critical error. While pleasure is sure to make us happy, it is a rather shallow and fleeting form of happiness – not entirely different from the pleasure acquired through the use of mind altering chemicals. The moment it wears off, it’s back to reality. To quote Winston Churchill: “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.” The only part of these chemicals that is sure to linger is its harmful toxins.
Unlike that which is implied and espoused within every facet of western culture, happiness is not about finding a way to escape ourselves and reality but rather to make peace with it.
There are after all only so many vacations we can take, so many cruises on which to elope, so many gadgets to divert our attention. Sooner or later the distractions and diversions run out and we are left with our good-old-selves to contend.
Happiness in the end is to cherish the life that is, not the one that was or might be – it is to face yourself in the mirror and like what you see.
Still, while to achieve happiness we must first be able to define it, knowing what happiness is, is only half the salvation. Obviously, we cannot get to where we want if we don’t know where that is. However, we must proceed to follow the yellow brick road.
Now that we know that happiness is an existential state of contentment and worth, rather than a never ending series of pleasurable pursuits and fixes, we must embark upon the journey – we must focus our attention on how to achieve it.
This week’s Parsha – Ki Savo – begins with the mitzvah of Bikkurim – the first fruits which are brought as an offering to Jerusalem: “And it shall be when you enter the Land. . . you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from the Land that the Lord, your G-d, gives you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord, your G-d, will choose. . . Then you shall call out before the Lord. . . And now, behold I have brought the first fruits of the ground that You have given me O Lord! And you shall lay it before the Lord your G-d, and you shall prostrate yourself before the Lord your G-d. . . (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)
In the proceeding verse the Torah declares: “You shall rejoice with all the goodness that the Lord, your G-d, has given you and your household – you and the Levite and the proselyte who is in your midst.”
Subsequently, the Torah launches into a discussion regarding the tithe of the Levite, the poor and the helpless: “When you have finished tithing every tithe of your produce in the third year. . . you shall give to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow and they shall eat in your cities and be satisfied. . .”
The assurance of our rejoicing is juxtaposed on one end with the call for appreciation – the need to recognize and express the blessings that G-d bestows upon us. On the other end the promise of joy is connected to the responsibility of sharing. Couched in this sequence lies the key to a life of joy and contentment.
Happiness begins by focusing on part of the glass which is full, rather than on the part which is empty, as goes the old adage: “I used to cry that I had no shoes, until I met the guy who had no feet.” We must stop looking at the relative or neighbor that has a better car than us and start looking at the neighbor that’s driving the “Clunker” – who would give anything for a car like yours.
If you seek a life of contentment and joy, says the Torah, you must begin by recognizing the blessings in your life and from whence it stems. The produce does not grow from itself. Were it not for G-d’s blessings, neither the farmer nor the land would exist and certainly not the produce.
But it doesn’t end there. Once you get out of your funk – once you realize how much you really have to be thankful for and to whom, you must realize how much others lack.
Connected on the other end of the Divine promise for happiness, are the instructions of the farmer’s obligation to give a percentage of his crops to the poor, the orphans and the widows.
The commentaries explain that true happiness is obtained only when we look after the poor and needy. The act of sharing with others and providing for the less fortunate is what allows us the joy in what we have and the license to possess it.
To live so that we can earn a living in-order to continue to live, just doesn’t cut it. We need to do something worthwhile with our lives, otherwise we feel unfulfilled and unhappy. Hence the Midrashic assertion: “The beneficiary does more for the benefactor than the benefactor does for the beneficiary.” – Vayikra Rabba 34:8.
An essential component in the pursuit of contentment is thus the satisfaction of making a positive difference in this world. Every human being, regardless of means, talent, intelligence, or education, longs for the deep and genuine reward that is derived from giving, as one wise man put it: “Being passionate about something is the key to success; but using that passion to help others is the key to happiness.”
An obvious example of this is man’s consistent historical willingness to enlist in battle against a common enemy, and the many people who risk their lives to rescue another person, knowing full well of the hazards involved. What inspires people to such enormous sacrifice is not their desire to be heroes. It is rather their need to make a difference.
Imagine if there were an evil plot by a group of terrorists to destroy a part of the world and that your expertise was needed in thwarting the plot. Would you not drop everything in your life and devote yourself to this endeavor? Would that not be the most important thing on your agenda?
Now take this hypothesis a step further. If you had actually played a role in preventing a terrorist attack, or in some other way help rescue a segment of humanity from disaster, would this not become the highlight of your life; something you would be proud to share with your grandchildren?
The above suggests that on our list of priorities in life, we place doing something for humanity at the very top of our list, even at great personal expense. From time immemorial, man has been willing to pay the ultimate price for what he perceived to be the “greater cause.”
Judaism is well aware of the fact that man could have all the wealth and materialism in the world and still be miserable, unless he develops a sense of worth, as is evident from the following parable:
As part of a ten-year sentence in a primitive criminal penitentiary, a prisoner was required to spend several hours a day turning a heavy wheel that protruded from his cell wall.
Each day as he stood in front of the brick wall cranking the steel handle round and round, his mind would wander-off to the other side of the wall. He had all sorts of visions about what was happening there. At times he imagined that there was a great millstone hitched to the wheel. He saw mounds of grain being milled into fine flour. On other occasions, he imagined a big spinning apparatus revolving by the laborious rotations of his arms. He dreamt of heaps of fiber being spun into large spools of yarn.
As time passed, the man came to grips with his unfortunate lot. He even developed a measure of pride as a result of his daily chore. Unpleasant as it was, he could take comfort in the fact that many people were benefiting from his hard labor.
Then came the day when his sentence was completed. On his way out of prison, he pleaded with the guard to be allowed a quick peek behind the wall. He needed to know what was really happening on the other side. What he had accomplished with his ten years of labor.
Having caught the guard in a generous mood, his wish was granted. But when he opened the door, he found the room completely empty; no millstone, no spinning frame, no flour and no yarn. The only thing in the room was a heavy weight, which was fastened to the wheel. Upon seeing this, the man fell to the ground in a dead faint.
When he was finally revived, he explained to the astonished guard: “My ten years of hard work was far less painful than the knowledge that it was all in vain. The thought that I’ve accomplished nothing with all my toil is simply too much to bear!”
The Torah knows that we have an innate need to contribute to the betterment of the world – a desire to know that our lives count for something.
Our need to make a difference; to make a contribution to the world in which we live, is arguably our true self-identity and sense of contentment for which we all strive. This is the secret of true and enduring happiness, the rest is commentary!