Wednesday, Nov 23, 2022

The Only True Happiness

The pursuit of happiness is once again in the air. Perhaps it is disappointment in elections, performance of candidates or just the usual personal matters. In any case, once again the “experts” are offering answers and opinions. Two recent articles came across my desk, neither particularly satisfying, but since there are no coincidences in Hashem’s world, we must give thanks for the true answer speaking so loudly to us in the parsha.

To go back just two weeks, the New York Times Sunday Book Review

(November 6, 2020, page 13) offers us the wisdom of Professor Kieran Setiya of MIT. His book, “Life is Hard,” is the result of an apparently difficult existence, suffering chronic pain from various medical conditions. Marshalling insights from such diverse disciplines as “literature, journalism and disability studies,” the author seeks solutions to ancient problems such as theodicy and simply finding happiness in an imperfect world. Citing a prominent Jewish Harvard psychologist, Tal Ben-Shahar, he comes to the simple conclusion that “happiness is a matter of definition.” This means that one should follow Plato in “accepting reality.” To Plato, as is well known, this means imagining life as a cave filled with shadows.

How, then, does one live happily with the shadows? Prof. Setiya’s personal response is that instead of constantly pursuing the illusion of a perfect life, one should “embrace one of the many ‘good-enough lives.’” If I may paraphrase, “settle for what you can get.” The reviewer, another professor, Irina Umitrescu, from the University of Bonne, concludes that reading this book “is like speaking with a thoughtful friend who never tells you to cheer up, but by offering gentle companionship and a change of perspective makes you feel better anyway.” The title of the book review is “Positivity is Overrated,” a sad but perhaps accurate depiction of the state of contemporary philosophy and self-help.

Not bad, but the Torah does much better. First, however, let’s move forward another week. This past week’s Sunday Opinion section (November 13, 2022, page 10), introduces us to an extreme version of contemporary advice and wisdom. The title of the article by one Tara Isabella Burton is “How Instagram Creates a Moral Vortex.” What that shockingly means is that the current language of the internet proves that “America’s current mental health is in shambles.” An apparently intensive study has shown that “the prevalence” of what experts call “Instagram Therapy” is a tremendous cultural trend toward “self-care.” This is clearly a euphemistic term for what is actually a selfish and egotistic celebration of “pursuit of private happiness” at the expense of all others. Other terms for this phenomenon are “solitary pursuit of best life” and “feelings have become the authoritative guide to what we ought to do.” I must confess that one almost longs sociologically for the hippy generations of the crazy 1960s who at least longed and yearned to change the world for the better of all. It seems that these people have “withdrawn to a highly subjective form of individualism.”

Again, it seems to have taken a Jewish, if modern, professor of Sociology to call it like it is. Eva Illouz, of Hebrew University of Yerushalayim, notes that “our emotions have become the moral ground for our actions. The prevailing mentality is “I feel something; therefore, I am entitled to make this demand.” Dr. Illouz suggests that in all this searching, “therapy helps us find meaning in the chaos of our lives… After all, if you don’t trust the society around you, your own feelings and perceptions start to look far more reliable than those of anyone else.”

We, who are maaminim bnei maaminim, people with an ancient belief system, hopefully have not descended into this frightening and nihilistic world. The apparent egocentricity is undoubtedly just a symptom of the lack of moral guidance and clear theology in a murky world. But if these descriptions have any validity, we should be concerned about their influence reaching our communities as well, as they so often do. Fortunately, this week, the antidote is extending a hand to us from the very beginning of the sedra.

The very first words and the name of the parsha alert us to the consistency throughout Sarah’s life. Rashi makes sure that we get it clearly: “They were all equally good.” Many meforshim have applied the words of Chazal (Brachos 54a), “A person must make a blessing upon the bad kesheim (just as) he makes upon the good.” The Gemara (60b) explains this to mean that “one must do so with the same degree of joy.” As has often been pointed out, “this would seem to be beyond the ability of all but the greatest tzaddikim. We must imagine the happiest moments in life, when we make either a Shehecheyanu or Hatov Vehameitiv upon something incredibly joyous. Then we must think about an equally great tragedy, G-d forbid.” Is it humanly possible to even contemplate such an equation? And yet, that is what Rashi, with the full power of Chazal and the posuk itself, is telling us Sarah felt. Rav Yaakov Neiman asserts that the moment of giving birth to Yitzchok at the miraculous age of ninety was the same to her as when she was abducted by Paroh and then Avimelech. She reacted to being sent into famine and danger, to the humiliation of childlessness, even when Hagar conceived immediately, the same as when she finally gave birth to one of the future fathers of Klal Yisroel. How can this even be possible?

The Chassidic giants answer with a story about one of their own, one of the royal families in Klal Yisroel. Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk was asked this question and referred the query to his brother, Rav Zusha of Anipoli. When the Chassidim arrived at the fabled city, they found Rav Zusha in tattered clothing and in extremely ill health, yet a radiant smile was always upon his face. When Reb Zusha heard the “shaalah,” he looked puzzled. “You must have made some mistake,” he chided gently. “You see, I can’t explain how someone could make the blessing on something bad the same way as something good. Nothing bad has ever happened to me.” The Chassidim understood why they had been sent to Anipoli for this answer.

One who lives, like Rav Zusha, with the absolute belief that “whatever G-d does is for the best” (Brachos 60b) never experiences disappointment, anger or frustration. That was Sarah Imeinu, but we must still discover her and Rav Zusha’s secret. Rav Yechiel Meir Cukier suggests that the source is Avrohom Avinu’s loyal servant, Eliezer. He yearned to have his daughter marry Yitzchok, but was strongly rebuffed by his master (Rashi 24:39). To add insult to injury, it certainly didn’t seem to Eliezer that the daughter of Besuel and sister of Lovon was worthy when his daughter was not. He, after all, was as close to Avrohom Avinu as anyone in the entire world except for Yitzchok. Eliezer, like Avrohom, was in control of all emotions and desires. He had full emunah and bitachon and taught all of Avrohom’s ideals to the world. But his dreams of a shidduch were shattered.

How did he react? Instead of delaying, he davened that the shidduch should be arranged successfully that very day (24:12). He davened with all his might that all should go well, totally discarding what had moments before been his most profound wish. Where did this strength of character come from? Chazal (Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishis 107) derive it from the posuk, “An intelligent servant will rule over a shameful son” (Mishlei 17:2), which they say refers to Eliezer. Rav Elchonon Wasserman explains that a true eved, such as Eliezer, wants only what his master wants. He subjugates every desire and yearning to be in accordance with his master’s will. For this reason, even Moshe Rabbeinu is eulogized by the Torah (Devorim 34:5) in two words, eved Hashem, the servant of G-d. Nothing else matters. That says it all. It is the ultimate compliment and summary of a life.

Sarah Imeinu served Hashem every moment. To her, it didn’t matter if something seemed disappointing or exhilarating. As long as she was fulfilling Hashem’s will, everything was great. Rav Eliyohu Eliezer Dessler’s very first essay in his magnum opus, Michtov M’Eliyohu, is about achieving a life of happiness. From the very first page of his letter to his son, Rav Nochum Velvel, whom I was privileged to know and who was a prototype of this teaching, he teaches the secret: “There is no happiness from material things in this world, only from the spiritual.” When we live for the next world, nothing in this one bothers us.

None of this is easy, but we have a lifetime to improve on a work in progress. Once we establish that we work for “The Boss,” everything falls into place. May we be zocheh to follow in the footsteps of our avos and imahos in all that we do.

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