Many of us labor under the common misconception that happiness is a result of the circumstances of our lives: if only I had a new Lexus, if only I had a nicer home, if only I was a few inches taller, if only I could sing on key—then I would be happy.
I imagine that father Jacob might have felt the same way. Ever since he stole his father’s blessing from his brother Esav he was on the run because Esav had threatened to kill him. He must have thought, perhaps when I’m able to return home and live peacefully with my brother…then I’ll be happy. And that’s where our Torah portion today begins: Vayeyshev Yaakov b’eretz m’gurey aviv b’eretz K’na-an, “Jacob settled in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.” He was finally back home after more than 20 years and he had made peace with Esav. So now was the time to find peace and really be happy.
But life is never that simple. And so Rashi (Gen. 37:2) teaches: Bikeysh Yaacov leyshev b’shalva, kafatz alav ragzo shel Yosef, “Jacob sought to settle down in peace—he thought that at last he was going to be able to do so—but the tragedy of Joseph sprung upon him.” Almost immediately his favorite son, Joseph, gets into trouble with his brothers as he taunts them with his dreams that foretell that he will rule over them. The brothers take Joseph captive and he is sold into slavery in Egypt. They dip his coat of many colors given to him by Jacob into goat’s blood and show it to their father—implying that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. Jacob cries out in anguish and is inconsolable—carrying his grief for years.
So much for finding happiness upon his return home! And truth be told, our lives are not much different. We convince ourselves that life will be better after we get married, after we have a baby, then another. Then we’re frustrated that the kids aren’t old enough and we’ll be more content when they are. Later we’re frustrated with the teenagers we have to deal with. We will certainly be happy when they go off to college and are on their own.
We tell ourselves that our life will be complete when our spouse gets his or her act together…when we’re able to go on a nice vacation, when we retire. The truth is, there’s no better time to be happy than right now. Your life will always be filled with challenges. It’s best to recognize this and decide to be happy anyway.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Alfred D Souza: For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. But there was always some obstacle in the way, something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. Then life would begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life.
The great philosopher, Gilda Radner’s Rosanna Rosanna Danna, perhaps said it best: “Well…it just goes to show you, it’s always something—if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” How true! Jacob’s entire life—from before his birth until his death—was one long struggle—one constant crisis from beginning to end. And what’s true of Jacob is true of all of us. One of the reasons Gd put us here on earth is tikun hanefesh, to rectify, or perfect our souls. And this necessitates life challenging us again and again. If life doesn’t challenge us then we’re wasting our precious time in this life. No one, therefore, can ever expect to have a life with only peace of mind and tranquility. And so it’s always something—if it ain’t one thing, it’s another!
How then can we ever find happiness? It comes with understanding a core principle of faith: that whatever happens in life is b’hasgacha pratit, “with Gd’s individual supervision.” There are no mistakes. You can never blame others for your sorrow for what happened to you. For example, you can’t say that someone ruined a business deal for you. It may be true that someone chose with his own free will to do it to you…and Gd will certainly make him accountable. But if it wasn’t him doing it, Gd would have used someone else. If Gd didn’t want it to happen, it would not happen. And once you understand that Gd did it, you need to work hard to figure out why you needed this challenge. Even if you can’t figure it out, bottom line is, in order to be truly happy you to have faith that whatever happens to you is from Gd for your benefit!
So if a person asks you, “How are you doing today?” the answer should always be, “Baruch Hashem, thank Gd, the best it could be.” The best it could be is not only for times when you’re on vacation or you win the lottery. Even when you’re in crisis answer, “Baruch Hashem, thank Gd, the best it could be.” Why? Hear this well. It is because Gd never does anything against a person—always for the person. The person may not know it; it might be painful; he might be embarrassed; he may be suffering…but he doesn’t know, on the other hand, how much his soul is gaining from it!
I heard Rabbi Joseph Mizrachi tell a wonderful story that beautifully illustrates this. David once asked his friend Moshe to take a bag full of diamonds and give it to another friend, Reuven, on top of a mountain. It was a very hot day, but Moshe was a good friend and agreed. Moshe began to climb and after an hour of walking he was so hot and drenched in sweat that he began to regret agreeing to do this favor. In fact, he began to wonder how much further he could go. After another 10 minutes, he kicks a rock and thinks to himself, “What a fool I am. I always agree to help people and look where it gets me.”
After another 10 minutes he thinks about turning around. Just then his phone rings. It’s David calling. He says, “Moshe, I forgot to tell you. When you get to the top of the mountain, Reuven is going to choose only one diamond out of the bag and all the rest is yours for the effort and for everything you have done for me.” David hangs up and Moshe, who was sitting down from exhaustion, sweating profusely, cursing his fate, jumps up and starts dancing. All of a sudden he no longer cares about the hot sun or the steep mountain. They’re nothing!
My friends, that’s us! When we don’t realize that all the suffering and struggles we face are for our own good, we’re like Moshe, kicking the rock and cursing life. Once we find out that what happens to us is for our own benefit, we can face our challenges with a smile and find happiness. The Torah teaches (Deut. 12:28) L’maan yitav l’cha ul’vanecha acharecha ad olam, “so that it be good for you and your children after you forever.” Whatever life throws at us is for our good! At the top of the mountain there’s a huge prize. Who cares about how hot it is outside or how high the mountain? The bag before Moshe found out that what’s inside is mostly his…is the same bag after. The effort to bring the bag to the top of the mountain is the same effort. Before, when Moishe thought he would get nothing for his efforts he suffered. Once he realized it was for his own benefit, even the suffering is nothing.
Chanukah is upon us. What the Maccabees went through to bring a little bit of light to the world! They struggled, they fought many battles against hopeless odds and many of them died. They were happy to do it. The joy of their light still shines brightly, as we light the Chanukah lights, l’hodot l’hallel l’shimcha hagadol, “to give thanks and praise to Gd’s great name” for all that He does for us.
So, my friends, treasure every moment that you have as a Chanukah gift from Gd. Stop waiting until you finish school, until you go back to school, until you lose 10 pounds, until you gain 10 pounds, until you have kids, until your kids leave the house, until you start work, until you retire, until you get married, until you get divorced, until Friday night, until Sunday morning, until you get a new car or home, until your car or home is paid off, until spring, until summer, until fall, until winter, until the 1st or 15th, until your song comes on, until you’ve had a drink, until you’ve sobered up or until you die…to decide to get rid of all the excuses and realize that there’s no better time than right now to be feel the wonder and excitement of your being and the growth that comes with all your challenges and thank Gd for the gift of your life. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis