Insights and Inspiration
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
"Your friend in Karmiel"
July 6th 2012 -Volume 2, Issue 35 –15h of Tamuz 5772
I’m an Israeli now. July 4th was a fun BBQ excuse holiday which is always a good thing, but this year I didn’t even notice that it passed; maybe because I’m still looking for some good meat to grill in this country. Yet I remember the day when we would talk get together and discuss the difference between the American dream and its rights as opposed to those of Israel and the Jewish State. One of the primary differences I always noted was this concept of the pursuit of happiness. In Israel we were and are looking to survive and to be able to make a difference and society that was impactful and hopefully Divine, (the problem is that every Jew has a different opinion of what that means- some even two). But happiness was never our pursuit. Fulfillment, accomplishment, spirituality, Divine connection and most of all peace are what we pray for and what move us. Happines? That’s an American pursuit, and one that certainly interesting to explore. What is this pursuit and why aren’t we searching for it over here?
As all good searches must begin I started my search at the easiest location; Google- of course. Which then sent me to Wikipedia. They then informed me that 50% of ones happiness quotient is related to ones genes. Hmmm… I think it’s a little too late to work on that. My next hit brought me to that classic work of wisdom and art the famed "you’re a good man Charlie Brown" and the happiness song. Here I found out that "happiness is finding a pencil and pizza with sausage and five different crayons and tying your shoe". Well the pizza thing wasn’t too Kosher (tofu sausages certainly don’t make me too happy) I don't use pencils and not great with crayons or shoes). It was pretty much downhill from there. Deepak Chopra- "Happiness is a continuation of happenings which are not resisted" ,(Huh?). Albert Schweitzer -" Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory". And the always insightful George Burns- "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city". And last and perhaps least the profound and insightful Don Marquis "Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness". Feeling joyous yet?’
Which, as is usually the case brings me to the place that is generally the only real place where I have usually found meaningful and satisfactory answers to the most pressing questions of life; our holy Torah. It’s a good thing, I guess, that Hashem gave us this book of wisdom and life or who knows what we would look like. This week’s Torah portion gives us a perspective of an individual who was certainly one of the least happy people in the world. We are told the story of Bilaam the prophet who was courted and enlisted to utilize his supernatural spiritual powers to curse the people of Israel. The lessons of Bilaam are lessons in un-happiness. Or what happens to someone who is too caught up in the pursuit of the elusive rather than the acceptance and the experience of what he has.
The Mishnah in Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) contrasts for us the difference between Abraham and Bilaam and their disciples The students of Abraham possess three primary character traits a good eye, a humble spirit, and a sense of contentedness while Bilaam's students possess the opposite, an evil eye, arrogance and greed. The Talmud tells us that Bilaam was the equivalent of Moshe our greatest leader in his capacity to achieve prophecy and lead the gentile world. Instead, his self absorption- that eye of his that could only see his own universe rather than reflect out to the rest of the world and serve their needs and elevate them brought him down. He had the power to bless humanity but instead he chose to curse. While Abraham looked at the world and felt humbled by the Almighty and his Creation, Bilaam's arrogance and his pursuit for honor drove him to attempt to defy Hashem's directive. In the end the Torah tells us he was mocked when his own donkey spoke and in his obsessive blinded pursuit of the happiness that can never be achieved, he became the symbol of an individual who ultimately couldn't even get respect and control upon that which his own backside would ride.
When one examines our Jewish leaders and heroes in the Torah and throughout our history, there are two things that one can find that are fairly consistent. The first is that none of them ever were ever engaged in a pursuit of happiness. Rather as King David in Psalms tells us our role is it is to be Bakeish Sholom V'Rodfehu- search out peace and pursue it. The righteous look out at the world and ask themselves not how can I become happy? Rather how can I make the world happier, kinder, more peaceful, and more holy. The focus on building a world of love and peace is the pursuit that is our unalienable Divine mandate; it is for that which we are created.
The second characteristic that can be found by those who merited to have had the privilege to encounter and to develop a relationship with our holy masters is that they all were filled with an incredible sense of happiness and inner peace. In the worst of times and through the greatest of struggles, from our forefathers and to our great leaders today somehow there is somehow a reservoir of happiness that fills them that allows them to shine it out and bring light and joy to the world. Their secret and the Torah's lesson? It is not the pursuit of one’s own happiness that will bring them joy or fulfillment. Rather it the pursuit of others happiness, the happiness between man and his fellow, between man and his Creator, and between our Loving Father and his children that will ultimately result in true inner happiness.
We live today in a society that has more and better "stuff" then ever before in the history of mankind. Yet we also live in a generation that suffers from more depression and a true lack of inner peace, joy and satisfaction than ever before. The early settlers of Israel came with different ideals. Perhaps if we would all take a step three thousand years before the founding fathers of the United States set out their mandate for the foundation of their society in the Declaration of Independence. And we looked back to our own heritage and our Forefathers and Jewish heroes as our beacons; we would be closer to achieving that happiness we seek. Our ancestors saw themselves and happiness not in their Independence and in their opportunities to further their own personal goals and lives, rather it was in their dependence on the Almighty for all the goodness that they had and the furtherance of his love and the worlds happiness and relationship with Him and with each other that was their life work and ultimate fulfillment. May we merit soon to see the true fulfillment of those dreams.
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
RABBI SCHWARTZ COOL PLACES IN ISRAEL OF THE WEEK-
Old Yishuv Museum/ Old City Jerusalem- There is so much to see in Jerusalem particularly in the Old City but this modest but fascinating museum is truly and experience for the whole family that will inspire and even entertain its guests of all ages. The old city yishuv in Jerusalem dates back to the 16th century with the arrival of Rabbi Yehudah Ha’chasid. Jews certainly lived there before but the most recent yishuv dates to that era of the ottoman turks. As one walks through the various displays of life back then, one can get a true appreciation of the struggles they had to survive until it was handed over to Jordan in the 1948 independence war and the destruction of the Rova. There are stories of midwives, brides, their living conditions, all types of activities and games children used to play (pre-i-phones and game-stations). One can also visit the ancient shul built over the home of the AriZ’l the “father” of modern Kabbalah study and practice who lived there until he moved to Egypt and then Tzefat where he is buried. As we work on appreciating the love and sacrifice Jews have had for Jerusalem there is no greater place then the Yishuv Musuem to get a feel for the commitment we have had to our holiest city. May we soon merit to see it fully restored.