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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 said that their inheritance was being consumed by their father. 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 parasha the Torah (Bereishis 31:4) relates how Jacob called his wives, Rachel and Leah, into the field where he was tending Lavan's flock. He told them 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, Jacob told his wives that he had received a Heavenly message through an angel who had told him to leave and return to his native land (see Bereishis 31:13).
His wives reply
Rachel and Leah replied (Bereishis 31:14-16): "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. For all the wealth that G'd has separated from our father belongs to us and to our children; so now do whatever G'd has said to you".
Nothing to lose
Rav Elya Lopian asks why did our Matriarchs make their introductory remarks before agreeing that Jacob follow G'd's word? It sounds like they only agreed to listen to G'd because they had nothing to lose. If they had hoped to gain by staying longer with Lavan, would they not have listened to G'd?
Serve G'd and be satisfied
Rav Lopian uses this to teach a very fundamental lesson in serving G'd. Rachel and Leah expressed that they realized that by following G'd's instructions they did not sacrifice anything. On the contrary, they would only benefit. Says Rav Lopian, we should never think that we get deprived and have more hardships when we serve G'd and fulfill His mitzvot. Sure the ultimate reward and greatness for serving G'd awaits us in the World to Come. But we must always remember 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 in order to help us grow and be fulfilled. These 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 develop into a great nation, he will be blessed, and his name will be great. These were immediate benefits. Abraham did not loose anything by serving G'd with great piety and reverence. On the contrary, G'd blessed him with great wealth and he was extremely respected by his contemporaries. Rashi asks in the name of the Midrash, why did G'd say to Abraham "lech lecha" (go for yourself), the word "lecha" ("for yourself") seems superfluous? Answers the Midrash, with this G'd hinted that it would be for Abraham's own benefit.
At the end of Benshen (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." Here again we are commanded to conduct ourselves with fear of G'd in all aspects of our lives, and immediately we are informed of the benefit of doing so. We continue and 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. Rather, King David stated that the righteous will not miss or lack anything. Obviously, righteous people also suffer in many ways, as we just experienced last week in Jerusalem. In such situations, we can only accept that G'd has His reasons for allowing such cruelty, and we have no way of understanding why with our limited vision.
Who enjoys life?
Rav Dessler once conducted a hypothetical survey to determine who are the people who really enjoy life? The result was very strange. In general, people would say they are sure that there are people who are happy, but they were not so happy themselves. They were a clear proof of the saying: the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
Rav Dessler started to interview members of the upper class, the very affluent people who seem to have everything they wish. It is surprising to hear all their complaints despite their affluence, or maybe because of it. They disclosed their jealousy for others who have acquired more than they. They also mentioned 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 would continually worry about protecting their assets, and making the right investments. They constantly live with the fear of losing their wealth and status. They were also burdened by their busy schedule, being expected to attend a host of social events. In short, in the eyes of the upper class, their lives are filled with headaches. As a matter of fact, a number of 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 said they were happy, the paper claimed that one of them was not telling the truth.
Rav Dessler then turned to the middle class to see if they have a happier and 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 emerged. They explained 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 allow themselves to do. The middle class claim 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. So they were clearly not happy with their lot in life.
Says Rav Dessler, could it be that we have to turn to the lower class to find someone who is really happy? However, as could be expected, 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 said: "Are you mocking us? We work long hours so that the middle and upper classes can 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 upon everyone. Yet no one seems to be happy. How can that be? What went wrong? What is the remedy to this evil? What can one do to really be happy and enjoy life?
Is anyone really happy?
Rav Dessler explains that we find the answer in Pirkei Avos (4:1): "Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot." Those who are always looking at their neighbours and associates to see what they have will always feel that they are missing something. It is impossible to be happy with such an attitude. The Midrash (Koheles 134) says: "Someone who has one hundred wants two hundred." We would think that once this person has acquired two hundred he will be happy and satisfied. However, it is not so. The Midrash continues: "The one who has two hundred wants four hundred, then eight hundred and so on." As it says, "Someone 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 one has, the poorer one is. As a person's standard rises, he lacks more and more. He therefore becomes less and less happy with his lot and feels more and more deprived.
The righteous mindset
This is what King David says: "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 not to be focused on the size of one's assets. Rather, one should accept that whatever one has was is what G'd allocated him, and this is exactly what he needs to fulfill his mission in life. As long as we make an honest effort to make a living we must learn to be satisfied and happy with what we have. If we manage to be happy with our lot in life, we are 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 a strong 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 we cannot reach. For 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.
On the other hand, in regards to spiritual "possessions", it is totally different. What "belongs" to others does not have to be beyond our 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 must realize that, like Rachel and Leah, we can only gain by serving G'd and fulfilling His Mitzvot. Our main focus should be on our spiritual possessions, on how to serve G'd, and on being better people in our interactions with our fellow human beings. When we look at life like this we will always be ready to give charity and extend a helping hand whenever needed. We will realize that we have been blessed with our material possessions for spiritual purposes. We may not be rich in terms of the quantity of our possessions. However, we will be rich because of our attitude towards our possessions. With this attitude, we will focus to acquire much spiritual wealth and will always be happy with our material possessions as well.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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