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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeitzei: Who is really happy?
Jacob received a heavenly message telling him to leave and return to his native land. His wives referred to their inheritance being consumed. Rav Elya Lopian questions the remarks made by our Matriarchs. Those who completely follow the instructions of the Torah have a pleasant and enjoyable life. G’d constantly tests us so that we will grow and be fulfilled. The righteous are not lacking anything. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. The lives of the upper class are filled with headaches. The middle class constantly worry whether they will have enough money to retire. The lower class cannot afford to buy their families nice things. No one seems to be happy. The more you have the poorer you are. Anyone happy with their lot in life is truly rich. The source of all unhappiness stems from the fact that, in regards to materialistic things, there is always something that cannot be reached. Spiritual “possessions” are totally different than material possessions. Those who use their material possessions for spiritual purposes will always be “wealthy”.
Jacob told to leave
In this week’s Torah portion (Bereishis 31:4), Jacob called them Rachel and Leah into the field where he was tending Lavan’s flock. He told his wives that he had noticed that their father’s disposition towards him was not as in earlier days. Despite the fact that he had served Lavan with all his might, Lavan changed their agreement a hundred times. Finally, he told them that he had received a heavenly message from an angel of G’d telling him to leave and return to his native land (Bereishis 31:13).
His wives reply
To this Rachel and Leah replied, “Do we still have a share and an inheritance in our father’s house? Are we not considered by him as strangers? He sold us and consumed our monies. But all the wealth that G’d has taken from our father belongs to us and to our children; so now do whatever G’d has said to you” (Bereishis 31:14-16).
Nothing to lose
Rav Elya Lopian asks why did our Matriarchs make the introductory remarks before they advised Jacob to follow G’d’s word? It appears that they only agreed to listen to G’d because they had nothing to lose. If they had retained their wealth while Jacob worked for Lavan, would they not have listened to G’d?
Serve G’d and be satisfied
Says Rav Lopian, from here we learn a very fundamental lesson in serving G’d. Rachel and Leah expressed that they realized that by following G’d’s command they did not sacrifice anything. On the contrary, they would only benefit. A person should not think or feel that anyone who serves G’d and fulfils the mitzvot must be deprived and have hardships in this world. Sure the ultimate reward and greatness for serving G’d awaits us in the world to come. But we should appreciate that by following the word of G’d and His commandments, our lives in this world will also be enriched. Those who completely follow the instructions of the Torah have a pleasant and enjoyable life. As it says in Pirkei Avos (6:4), “You will be fortunate in this world and it will be good for you in the World to Come.”
G’d constantly tests us so that we will grow and be fulfilled. Sometimes the tests can be very challenging. Abraham was told by G’d to leave his father’s house, his native country, and move away from his family to a strange land that G’d would show him. This was difficult and painful. However, G’d also told him that he will become a great nation, he will be blessed, and his name will become great. These were immediate benefits. Abraham did not loose anything by serving G’d with great piety and reverence. On the contrary, he was blessed with great wealth and extremely respected by his contemporaries. Rashi, quoting from the Midrash, explains that when G’d said to Abraham “lech lecha” (go for yourself), the words “for yourself” appear to be superfluous; however, the meaning is that it would be for Abraham’s own benefit.
At the end of Grace after the Meal, we say (Psalm 34:10-11) “fear G’d, you His holy ones, for there is no deprivation for the ones who fear Him … Those who seek G’d will not lack any good.” Again we see that we are commanded to conduct ourselves with fear of G’d in all aspects of our lives. But immediately we are informed of the benefit of doing so. It goes on to say (Psalm 37:25), “I was a youth and I have aged and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken, with his children begging for food.” The Ramban explains that this does not necessarily mean that the righteous will be affluent and have every available luxury. But the righteous do not miss it and are not lacking anything.
Who enjoys life?
Rav Dessler once conducted a hypothetical survey: who are the people who really enjoy life? The results are very strange. In general, people say they know someone else who is happy but few suggest that they are really happy themselves. As the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
If we start with the upper class, the really rich people who seem to have everything they wish, we may be surprised to hear all their complaints despite their affluence, or maybe because of it. They would disclose their jealousy for others who have acquired more, their private problems at home, whether with spouses who are difficult to satisfy or children who are arrogant and spoiled, constantly expecting and demanding more and more. In addition, they continually worry about protecting, preserving and investing their assets. They constantly live with the fear of losing their wealth and status. They are also burdened by their busy schedule attending social obligations. In short, in the eyes of the upper class, their lives are filled with headaches. As a matter of fact, a few years ago the New York Times interviewed ten of the richest people in the USA. Eight of them said they were not happy with their life. Of the remaining two, who both claimed to be happy, the paper claimed that one of them was not saying the truth.
So we turn to the middle class to see if they have a happier, calmer life. They have 9 to 5 jobs with steady incomes. They do not have the major worries of preserving vast fortunes. But again, from their viewpoint a different picture emerges. They will tell you that they are working full hours so that their bosses can amass wealth. Their bosses come and go as they please, take long vacations, and do all the things they cannot do. The middle class complain that they can never save enough money because they have too many bills to pay. They constantly worry whether they will have enough money to retire. They too are not happy with their lot in life.
Could it be that we have to turn to the lower class to find someone who is really happy, as the upper and middle classes do not appear to be happy? However, they too complain. They have to hold down more than one job just to put bread on the table. They cannot afford to buy their families all the nice things that the middle and upper classes can afford. The lower class say, are you mocking us? The middle and upper classes enjoy the benefits of our hard labour. How can we be happy?
Is anyone really happy?
The picture that emerges is very strange. G’d created a world in His great kindness to shower blessings and goodness on everyone. Yet no one seems to be happy. How can that be? What went wrong? What is the remedy to this evil? How can anyone really be happy and enjoy life?
Is anyone really happy?
We find the answer in Pirkei Avos “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot” (4:1). Those who are always looking at their neighbours and associates to see what they have will always feel that they are missing something. In general, it is impossible to be happy with this state of mind. Our sages say the one who has one hundred wants two hundred. The one who has two hundred wants four hundred, then eight hundred and so on (Midrash on Koheles 134). As it says, “The one who loves money, will never be satisfied with money” (Koheles 5:9). If a person’s ambition in life is to acquire materialistic wealth, the more the person has the more he will be lacking, as his expectations continue to grow. So in fact, the more you have the poorer you are. As your standard rises you lack more and more, becoming less and less happy with your lot and feel more and more forsaken.
The righteous mindset
This is what King David meant when he said, “I have not seen a righteous person forsaken” (see above). The righteous do not seek to amass wealth. Nor do they occupy themselves with looking at the wealth of others. The righteous are grateful for whatever they have. The Torah attitude to wealth is do not focus on the size of your assets but on the satisfaction with what you have. Anyone happy with their lot in life is truly rich.
The source of all wars
With this we can better understand the complete text of the seemingly strange Mishna in Pirkei Avos (6:4 see above), “This is the way of Torah, eat bread with salt, drink a small measure of water, sleep on the ground and live a life of pain, but toil in Torah. If you do this, you are fortunate in this world and it will be good for you in the world to come.” Explains Rav Dessler, if you have such a great desire to study and live a life of Torah, and that becomes your main ambition in life, then it will not be significant at all how much or little you have. You will be the happiest person in this world. Rav Dessler says that the source of all unhappiness stems from the fact that, in regards to materialistic things, there is always something that cannot be reached. What belongs to others is always beyond our reach. Throughout history, the desire to grab the material possessions of others has been the source of all quarrels, strife, and wars between individuals and countries.
Spiritual “possessions” are totally different than material possessions: what “belongs” to others does not have to be beyond your reach at all. For example, knowledge is a spiritual possession. When two people share the same knowledge, it does not in any way diminish the knowledge of either one. In fact, they may both increase their knowledge by sharing and discussing it.
Wealth is a state of mind
Happiness depends on a person’s mindset, not on their wealth. We should realize, like Rachel and Leah, that we can only gain by serving G’d and fulfilling His Mitzvot. Our focus should be on our spiritual possessions, on how to serve G’d, and on being a better person in our interactions with our fellow human beings. Such people are always ready to give to charity and to extend a helping hand whenever needed. These people use their material possessions for spiritual purposes. They will always be “wealthy”. They may not be rich in terms of the quantity of their possessions. However, they will always be rich because of their attitude towards their possessions. With this attitude, we will acquire much spiritual wealth and will always be happy with our material possessions as well.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network