A Life of Contentment, Not Convenience

Mankind has long bemoaned our growing lack of patience. Ever since the inventions of instant coffee, microwaves and other so-called creature comforts, many social commentators have noticed the sacrifice of quality for expedience and speed. Since the various revolutions of industry, technology and communication, several universal ancient standards have partially or even completely disappeared from most of mankind’s norms. Basic examples are handwriting, letter writing, craftsmanship and even conversation.

Yet, very recently, another forfeiture of our societal rush to have everything immediately is our almost total loss of the ability to cope, struggle and triumph over adversity. Although this column has often been critical of the inane pronouncements of New York Times sociologists and self-proclaimed experts, a recent article (Times Sunday Review, February 18, 2018) by TimWu, a Columbia law professor, contains an excellent analysis of the latest of these phenomena.

Titled “The Tyranny of Convenience,” Dr. Wu declares definitively that “convenience has a dark side.” In a line every Torah Jew could embrace, he notes that the original purpose of labor-saving devices was supposed to be “the great liberator of humankind from labor…saving time and eliminating drudgery…it would create the possibility of devoting time to learning…” Of course, he adds the opportunity to spend time on hobbies and other pursuits we may not value as much he does, but at least he understands that the proper goal of these devices and services was to allow time for loftier endeavors. But what happened instead? Interestingly, Mr. Wu traces the “subtle but fundamental shift in the ideology of convenience” to “the advent of the Sony Walkman in 1979.”

Listing the most recent progeny of the Walkman, such as the VCR, the playlist, the Facebook page and the Instagram account, he sees all of these as “minimizing the mental resources, the mental exertion… required to choose.” In other words, he views what he calls “the cult of convenience” as driving man away from engaging in the multitude of choices that used to define life.

“Convenience,” he asserts, “is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking a tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place. We are becoming people who care mainly or only about outcomes. We are at risk of making most of our life experiences a series of trolley rides… An unwelcome consequence of living in a world where everything is ‘easy’ is that the only skill that matters is the ability to multitask. At the extreme, we don’t actually do anything; we only arrange what will be done, which is a flimsy basis for life.”

Not a bad mussar shmuess. What will he say when the self-driving cars take over? However, we need to put this assessment through the crucible of a Torah perspective. What do Chazal say about this predicament and what to do about it?

Let us begin with a Chassidic story. A chossid went to the Maggid of Mezeritch with his tale of woe. He was beset by troubles of every conceivable kind. He was totally impoverished, had severe illness in the family, and was experiencing difficulties in shidduchim and a number of other challenges. “Please, rebbe,” the chossid implored, “give me a bracha so that I could serve Hashem in tranquility and serenity. It is so hard for me to concentrate on being a good Jew when wherever I turn, someone in my family is crying for help with something or other.” The great Maggid looked at his follower with compassion, but answered with a probing question. “Who told you that Hashem wants your avodah in the peace and quiet of success and prosperity? Perhaps Hashem is happy with what seems to you to be insufficient avodas Hashem, whereas in heaven it is received as the most precious gift of all.”

In truth, one of the most important of life’s lessons is that we were created to undergo tests and to deal with difficulties. As the Pele Yoetz (“nisayon”) writes, “There is no human being who is not tested by Hashem. The rich man is tested by how he treats the pauper, the poor man with his poverty, the wise man with [how he uses his] wisdom, the one who suffers with his pain, the businessman with his integrity and the craftsman with his specialty. Thus, no one is left untouched by the test of adversity.”

Rav Yechezkel Levenstein (Yad Yechezkel, Beshalach) asks one of the basic questions about Jewish history, especially our bondage in Egypt. “Why,” he inquires, “did Hashem take us out of Mitzrayim only to frighten us nearly to death at the Red Sea? Couldn’t He just have taken us directly to Eretz Yisroel, where we would have been able to serve Him in peace after all we had suffered under the Egyptians?”

He answers that “man does not grow except through adversity. If Hashem had allowed us to enter the land miraculously and easily, we would have remained at the same spiritual level as before. What elevates a person to greatness is the daily struggle to overcome hardship and troubles. Thus, what we perceive as a reversal is actually one of G-d’s greatest gifts, allowing us the opportunity to shine brightly as we deal properly with one of life’s tests.

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, rov of Ramat Elachonon, helped a beleaguered man overcome his troubles using a similar teaching. He told him a story of Napoleon who, with one of his aide decamps, sneaked into a city the French emperor was besieging. After they had obtained crucial information, the two disguised spies were attempting to sneak out of the city, when Napoleon was recognized. “That’s Napoleon, a man shouted out. Let’s kill him.” Their lives in mortal danger, Napoleon’s quick-thinking attendant slapped the famed general in the face, knocking him down to the ground. He kept beating him up, to the point that everyone said, “That can’t be Napoleon. His aide wouldn’t treat him with such disdain.” In the confusion, they managed to barely escape, Napoleon bleeding and wounded from head to toe. Yet, the great man immediately thanked his assistant for saving his life, for indeed only the blows had saved him.

Rav Zilberstein turned to his visitor with deep empathy. “I feel your pain my friend, but you, too, have probably been saved from much worse or death itself by your suffering. Do not give up or despair. Have faith that Hashem will deliver you from all harm” (Borchi Nafshi 5:131).

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, formulated this concept in a famous explanation of a posuk. Shlomo Hamelech teaches (Mishlei 24:16), “The righteous one may fall seven times and arise.” Rav Hutner (Igros Ukesavim, page 217, No. 128) wrote, “Only fools translate ‘despite falling seven times, he will arise.’ However, those who are wise understand very well that the tzaddik rises precisely because he has fallen so many times. His entire essence is that his rise is made up of many falls.”

Rav Hutner’s final advice to the young man who is struggling while fighting the good fight is “lose battles but win wars.” We must keep our eyes on the goals, not on the petty and insignificant events in between. As the good professor said, the journey counts, not only the destination. On the other hand, one should never lose track of where one needs to end up on the ultimate voyage. From the Torah perspective, both the road itself (e.g., Derech Hashem, Orchos Tzadikim, Mesilas Yesharim) count, but we must always remember where we are heading and how to get there.

A dramatic example of the need to avoid living an “easy life” may be seen in the hesped that Rav Shmuel Berenbaum zt”l, rosh yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, delivered at his son’s levayah. He quoted the famous Rashi (Bereishis 27:1) which says that when Avrohom Avinu was about to offer his son, Yitzchok, as a korban at the Akeidah, the heavens opened and the angels cried. Rav Berenbaum asked at that poignant and painful moment, “Why did the heavens have to open for the angels cry? Wasn’t the scene tragic enough for tears even without a change in the universe?”

Rav Berenbaum cited the story of the Ramban’s talmid who passed away at a tragically young age. The Ramban gave the young man on his deathbed an amulet that would open the gates of heaven for him. He instructed him that when he reaches a certain one of the heavenly gates, he should ask his questions about his early death and other difficult matters. The amulet worked, but the student returned to the Ramban in a dream, explaining that he could no longer ask his rebbi’s questions, since in heaven there were no questions. All was clear and he was embarrassed to ask about the obvious.

Rav Berenbaum concluded that the angels at the Akeidah, too, would not have been able to cry if they were still watching from a heavenly perspective. Since from that vantage point all was clear and good, there was, in effect nothing to cry about.

Indeed, we are living through a time of the “tyranny of convenience.” But we do not have a “flimsy basis for life.” We have the most important reasons to live: Torah mitzvos, maasim Tovim, teshuvah – and yes, nisyonos. It is those tests for which we live (beginning of Mesilas Yesharim) and we should cherish the moments, because they are what grant us eternal life and ultimately Olam Haba. Let us truly remember that it’s not the convenient life that is worth living. Constancy and conviction are what give life its meaning, purpose and contentment.