Every Shabbat, some chevre prepare Words of Wisdom, spiritual food for thought to accompany the physical feast. This W.O.W. from the archives describes a Jewish view of contentment.

I read once in a prayer book that we end our lives, “like children falling asleep over their toys.” That is how I want to die.

Someone once told me that if you see a really happy person, you will find that person building a boat, writing a symphony, teaching a kid, growing a garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs. That person will have realized that he or she is happy just being alive in the course of living out each day. Here’s my way of saying the same thing. Get busy and do stuff. Each day is an opportunity. That is my approach and while I am far from perfect, that might be the best thing I have going for myself.

Judaism and contentment

All the time I worry about realizing my long term goals. Now, in Israel I also worry about feeling fulfilled. But in a few, rare content moments, I am satisfied just being alive. Notice by the way that I haven’t said the word ‘happy’ once. I really want to eliminate that word from my vocabulary. Happiness is just too damn elusive to worry about.  To live life meaningfully, in small increments, is a much better way – if you get through today, good job. When we compartmentalize our lives into day by day compartments it becomes far less daunting. Life becomes about fulfillment rather than happiness, and a day is a reasonable amount of time to judge how successful you were.

As Americans I think we are obsessed with happiness. When I was a kid my parents never asked me if I was happy, or if I liked summer camp or a teacher or whatever. They cared about what I accomplished, not my happiness. If I told my mother I was sad or mad about something, they said ‘so change it’ and I did.  I think now they might have been harsh, but when we all focus on happiness it’s not a good thing. We like to ask each other if we like our boss, our iPad, if we feel positive about our religion. When we do so, I think we are ignoring the vicissitudes of life. There is a ton of stuff out there in life to make us miserable – why would we pretend otherwise? Quite frankly, the search for happiness is probably a chief source of unhappiness.

Survival and fulfilment are genuine goals, while happiness remains elusive. All of us, coming of age when the world is more and more competitive and tougher for a person in their early twenties. We can feel like we’ve got it all and then a test result, a rejected application, news from home can change everything. I recognize that we have it good, and yet in my twenty-four years of life I still cannot figure out the suffering that we experience. Neither could Job. But God didn’t care if Job was happy, he simply illustrated to him (harshly) that there are circumstances in life beyond our control and we have to learn to live with it. Bad things happen to good people and I don’t know why.

This focus on personal happiness is also rather un-Jewish. Egocentrism simply doesn’t play a role in Judaism or Christianity or Islam for that matter. We can look in our tradition to the prophets of Israel who believed that acting beyond themselves to better the lives of others were how to live a sound religious life. Mark Twain (Mark Twain anyone?) once said that “the best way to cheer yourself up is to cheer up someone else.” Pretty true, AND pretty Jewish.

There is an American rabbi, Joshua Liebman, who wrote a book called Peace of Mind. In it, he discusses how the first step to fulfilment in life is how we ought to be content with ourselves. It is one thing, he argues, to be aware of your faults, but he points out that often our own personal happiness is sabotaged by obsessing over those shortcomings. In Judaism, perfection is a striving, NOT a reality, and part of life is being tolerant of those shortcomings in ourselves and those around us. We can channel our own imperfection then towards good, as the Zohar says – there is no light but that which shines from darkness.

I think it follows then, something that I heard that the Dalai Lama once say; “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. But if YOU want to be happy, practice compassion.” I feel that this happiness, a by-product rather than an objective, is genuine fulfilment. This can occur in a myriad number of ways. In the small, I felt better yesterday when I empathized with someone and helped them express themselves, despite a bad mood. Or all the time at Livnot, I see people returning from their community service feeling elated for the day. At the extreme, I was once privileged to hear holocaust survivor Eva Kore speak, in which she discussed her personal decision to forgive Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death of Auschwitz who experimented on her and her identical twin. Afterwards, she decided that there was simply too much of life remaining ahead of her to experience without worrying about the oppressive burden of her memories there, and with that, she forgave him and moved on to take action in her life. Her experience came to mind when I had the bad luck to be attacked by a mob last week in Jerusalem (I was fine by the way). I can see how in another universe that it would have been a rather scarring experience. But in fact I can’t be bothered with that. Though I can’t claim to understand them, I forgive them too. Guys, “if you want others to be to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Flowers on Livnot Israel HikeThis idea is the most basic idea in Judaism as I know it. From what little I have seen of Talmud, there is lots and lots of material dealing with the relationship and responsibility of one human being to another. God never did promise us a rose garden. What he did give us was the ability to handle life’s most difficult moments, and the instructions to create a better world not only for ourselves but for others as well. We are not told anything about our personal happiness, but instead that the perfection of the world will come when we create happiness for others.

All of us are going to walk out of here, go about our lives when we return to the US, and we’ll ask all of our friends, family, everyone, “how are you?” The Hebrew question, “mashlomcha” actually translates to asking nothing of our feelings, our happiness: it says, “what is your peace?” Forget about the transient feelings we may or may not have. Instead, ask about peace, internal and external, peace in which we work to create a better world around us.

Shabbat shalom.