Ra’anana Community Kollel
You Are Here - But Why?
Rabbi Binyamin Lipson
Happiness - Isn’t that all we really want from life? Our search for happiness is, without question the single underlying motivation of everything that we seek to achieve.
However, to actually define happiness seems even more difficult than to achieve it. At first glance it would seem, that happiness, perhaps even by definition, cannot be defined. After all, every person is a unique and special part of the creation, and just as their faces differ from one another, so too, every person has their personal likes and dislikes. Surely, happiness for each individual is one of a kind.
Nevertheless, even bearing this in mind, all of the varied forms of happiness that people seek can be linked together with a general definition. All happiness really stems from the achievement of a goal. When we achieve, it makes us happy. It’s very important to differentiate here between happiness and contentment. While contentment merely depends on having everything I need and want, real happiness only comes from actively achieving my goals. We all know people who have everything that they could ever want but somehow remain unhappy. Contentment depends on having; happiness results from achieving.
If what we truly desire is happiness and happiness is the result of achievement, then the logical step to take is to define achievement. Would you consider having less an achievement? Certainly not. The reason is because an achievement is only something that I did. I applied myself, worked towards my goal, and succeeded.
An achievement is only an achievement because is won’t happen unless I make it happen. When we look at our lives it would seem that nearly all of our endeavors qualify as achievements. After all, it’s only because we go to work that we are able to supply the needs of our families. It is only through our endeavor that we have the means to support charitable causes, and it is only through our efforts to care for ourselves that we are able to remain healthy. Certainly these are all accomplishments.
As Jews, one of the most important traits that we need to work to acquire is humility. Probably above all, humility is the knowledge of our own shortcomings. It’s a lot easier and certainly a lot more comfortable to focus exclusively on the lackings of those around us, but without the knowledge of our own limits we can never live lives of truth. Our single most primary religious belief is the existence of one all-powerful Being who brought the world into existence and continues to be intimately involved in all of its events. Without this belief we cannot so much as begin our lives as Jews, yet we must at the sane time believe that we can never, comprehend even a fraction of this perfection. Even on the World to Come we will remain created beings with a limited capacity for understanding. The Torah is likened to water to illustrate to us that just as water is not found in high places but rather flows downward, so to, the knowledge of Torah is only found among those who make themselves low with humility. How many times have we seen that the ideas and values espoused by the secular world are incongruous with those of the Torah? If we ever hope to learn and grow in our understanding of the truth, we must first admit to ourselves that we may be presently living our lives based on incorrect assumptions.
“[During pregnancy] an angel takes the child, brings it to Hashem and asks, “Master of the World, will this child be strong or weak, wise or foolish, wealthy or impoverished”. However “righteous or wicked” he does not ask, for everything is decreed from heaven except for fear of heaven.” (Talmud Niddah 16b)
The “fear of heaven” which the Talmud describes is our power of free will. While all other aspects of our lives are determined on high, our ability to choose our path remains solely in our control. Often we stand at the crossroads faced with difficult decisions. Will we rationalize our actions and do what we feel like doing, or will we face up to the truth that we know in our hearts and ignore illusion? In situations like these we are free to choose our own reality and it is when we pass such tests that we have truly achieved. While working longer hours will not increase our income and special diets will not lengthen our lives, our success in standing in the face of trials affects our entire situation both physically and spiritually. These victories are solely the result of our efforts and therefore the profits are truly something that will bring us happiness.
Perhaps when we find that happiness is not easily achieved, this is because we look for it in the wrong places. In the areas of our lives that are decreed from heaven there is no room for achievement. Even if we got what we wanted it cannot provide us with true inner happiness simply because they are not the result of our efforts. Our great potential to achieve in life lies in our ability to choose between right and wrong, between positive and negative, between growth and complacence. Anyone who has even once stood in the face of such a trial knows the great feeling of joy and accomplishment that it brings. This is the joy of the true spiritual achievement that we long for and are all fully capable of realizing.
The prophet Yirmiyah relates (9, 22-23) “Thus says Hashem, the wise men should not take pride in his wisdom, the mighty in his strength, nor the wealthy in his riches”. It is only appropriate to praise achievements, not inborn characteristics. Our wealth, our strength, and natural ability to understand are bestowed to us even before we are born. They are not the result of our endeavors. Therefore, they are not worthy of praise.
“If a person tells you ‘I worked and I found’ believe him”.
The Chidushei Harim asks a very simple question. The statement should have read ‘I worked and I achieved’. Finding something normally connotes a lack of effort. This Gemara is teaching us a vital lesson in our outlook on life. Even though we are expected to invest reasonable efforts towards our goal, the outcome is never the result of those efforts. Once we have invested sufficient tactics to acquire our goal, the “result” is given to us as a gift, like a person who merely finds something without any effort. This means that every time we succeed in something we are being tested. Will we relate our thanks to Hashem for the gifts we have received, or will we attribute our prosperity to our own efforts? If we choose the latter, we have greatly limited the realm of human responsibility. Our decisions are ours, but the results lie solely in the hands of Heaven. With this we can now understand the statement of our sages. “If a person has intention to do a mitzvah but was prevented by circumstances beyond his control, he is still regarded as having completed it”. Our role in the world is to make the right decisions when we come to the crossroads, but the ability to actually produce results is out of our reach.
This idea has profound relevance in our approach to the concept of change. When we stand in front of Hashem on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, the prospect of improving ourselves seems overwhelming. We have so many things we need to improve. We know we can do better, but it’s very easy to give up before we start. What we need to do is to look deep into our hearts until we touch the
spark of pure holiness that lies within each and every one of us. The part of us that wants nothing else but to connect with the person we are really capable of being.
On Rosh Hashanah we don’t mention our mistakes. Rather, we use our ability to choose, that unique power that rests inside us, to align ourselves in the proper direction. R’ Yisrael Salanter used to say that when a person says Shema he concentrates to proclaim Hashem’s kingship over the entire creation. However, we often leave out one place, the chair that we sitting on! Likewise, on Rosh Hashanah we acknowledge Hashem’s rulership over the whole world. Let’s not forget ourselves. When we are standing in Shul on Rosh Hashanah, we are standing at a crossroads, and reaffirming Hashem as our king is all that is within our ability to do. We don’t need to think about what we’ve done or worry about what we will do. What we really need to make real to ourselves on the Day of Judgement is where, in our deepest longings, we desire to be. When we make our true feelings known to ourselves we can begin to taste the sweetness of the New Year ahead of us, and to experience the happiness in living lives of truth.