from the heart of jerusalem

Finding happiness through our sense of purpose


None of us remembers exactly what it was we were supposed to have done, and what it was that had so enraged them, but our sergeants were on the warpath and it was clearly going to be a long afternoon.

It started as just another inspection, more than 30 years ago on a Friday afternoon, after a week of intense maneuvers with very little sleep, followed by the weekly servicing of our tanks all night long. We were exhausted. 

Our tanks had passed inspection, finally, and, full of oil and grease, and having gone without any sleep since early Thursday morning, and without a shower since Saturday night, all that stood between us and Shabbat was one last inspection of our barracks. 

Blankets drawn tight across beds, boots polished to a black shine, gear stowed regulation style beneath the foot of the bed, guns cleaned and oiled, and floors mopped shiny clean, we could practically taste the showers and Shabbat food that awaited. 

And then something went dreadfully wrong and amidst screaming sergeants, flying blankets, and beds tipped over, we were given seven minutes to redo the entire inspection — outside on the base perimeter in front of the tanks!

It is hard to imagine a company of tank crewmen carrying bunk-beds full of gear all the way out to the area in front of the tanks and trying to remake the beds and stow the gear while making sure the guns stayed clean. And then they started screaming at us all over again; we had forgotten our boot lockers.

As the sun dipped lower on the horizon, again we were ordered: “Thirty seconds around the tanks: MOVE!”

We were expected to run around the line of tanks and get back in line within 30 seconds, a hopeless task. And then we were made to run with our beds, and then with our boot lockers — all as the sun dipped lower and lower.

And then someone started to laugh.

We were behind the tanks so the commanders couldn’t see us, and pretty soon the entire company was in hysterics. We did our best to put a straight, agonized face back on once we came back into the view of our commanders, but they could see that most of us were smiling, which of course only infuriated them more.

With time on our side (they had to end all this before Shabbat) we all come to the same realization: that our enjoyment was also our victory, that we would not break. Of course, in retrospect, that may well have been the point of the entire exercise (to mold us as a unit), but at the time, the pure joy of recognizing we had nothing more to lose, and we might as well laugh about it as cry, was a powerful experience that stays with me still.

But as much as I still smile, recalling that experience, it nonetheless leaves one with a compelling question: how do some people succeed in smiling in the face of adversity?

Rav Nachman of Breslev is quoted as having said: “Mitzvah gedolah le’hiyot besimcha tamid” (“It is a great mitzvah to always be happy”).

Sounds nice; but seems to be beyond most of our reach, no? How do we keep smiling when the most horrific things sometimes come our way?

This week’s portion, Re’eh (literally: “See!”) is all about learning to see the world through different eyes. This may explain why the particular mitzvah of being joyous on the festivals, occurs in this portion — specifically on the festival of Sukkot, the third of the regalim: “Ve’hayita’ ach sameach” (“And you shall be completely joyous”). (Devarim 16:15)

How does a person develop the skill set necessary to being a happy person? And can one maintain joy in the face of the inevitable adversities life throws our way? 

Take, for example, the story of Aaron who, as part of an enslaved people in Egypt, caught in the depths of the most evil and cruel empire the world had ever known, might have been expected to be quite miserable. Yet, he is the only individual in the entire Torah who is described as being happy! No less than G-d Himself tells Moshe that Aaron will, upon seeing Moshe (just arrived back in Egypt after 40 years), “rejoice in his heart”! (Shemot 4:14).

What is the secret to being happy? How does Aaron do it?

On the other hand, look at the story of Haman, who seems to represent the opposite extreme. Haman, chief advisor to king Achashveirosh of the Persian empire, is essentially the second most powerful person in the entire world. He is happily married (albeit to a wicked woman), with no less than ten sons who seem to idolize him and want only to follow in his footsteps, and every subject of the Persian empire who crosses his path must bow down to him.

And yet: “Ve’kol zeh einenu shaveh li” (“All this is worthless to me”) (Esther 5:13) — simply because there is one Jew (Mordechai) who will not bow down to him!

Herein, perhaps, lays the key to happiness: Haman cannot focus on all that he has because he is stuck on what he does not have. Being happy is not really about how much we actually have, it is rather about appreciating how much we have. And it is only through appreciation that we really have things at all.

And it gets deeper, because if happiness is all about purpose (hence people who feel they have no purpose are depressed, whether they be financially well off or not, and people who are imbued with a sense of purpose have much joy in their lives), there is no true purpose unless we are created. If we are a random accident in a G-d-less world, then of course there is no real purpose to our being here in the first place, which of course is very depressing.

But if we are created, and obviously G-d has a reason for creating all of us, so we all have purpose, then by definition I must have what I need, always! Whatever I have, and whatever skills I was born with are, by definition, all I need to accomplish whatever my purpose is in this world. And being happy is simply based on my ability to see that, all the time.

Even in the midst of the servitude of Egypt, as soon as Aaron sees Moshe, he knows Moshe is coming into his life again because somehow he needs Moshe to help him achieve his purpose. Otherwise, why would G-d have sent Moshe to him after all these years? And of course, if I need Moshe in my life to achieve my purpose in this world, then it is only natural that seeing Moshe again after forty years will fill me (or in this case Aaron) with joy.

Sukkot, the festival on which we are commanded to rejoice, is actually the goal, as it is the festival of the harvest. All the other festivals ultimately lead to Sukkot, economically as well as theologically, hence it is on Sukkot that we truly rejoice, when the purpose of all that hard work becomes clear.

Happiness is achieved when we succeed in tapping into what we each feel our purpose is meant to be, which of course is what joy is all about.

And there is a character flaw which seems to lie at the root of unhappiness: and that is pride. 

Haman when asked by the king (Achashveirosh) how to pay homage to a person the king wants to honor, immediately assumes the king is speaking of none other than Haman himself. (Esther 6:6: “Whom would the king wish to honor more than me?!”)

As opposed to Moshe who, upon being told by G-d that he must go to speak with Pharaoh, says ‘Mi anochi ki eileich el Pharaoh?” “Who am I to go before Pharaoh?” (Exodus 3:11)

For Haman, it is all about Haman, but for Moshe, it’s all about G-d and the Jewish people. Moshe sees himself as a tool in something much greater, whilst Haman considers himself the goal of all that he does. And a person like that always feels he is missing something.

Too much pride will make you miserable. Because what is pride all about? Pride suggests that it’s all about me, but true joy is about recognizing that I am just a vehicle to a greater and higher purpose. 

May we all succeed in finding joy in our lives by learning to see all we have, and finding the clarity to decide, as individuals and as a nation, what we are meant to do with it all.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.

This column originally appeared in 2012.