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May 30, 2016 6:28 am

Material Goods Do Not Make Us Happy or Fulfilled

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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A torah scroll. Photo: Rabbisacks.org.

A torah scroll. Photo: Rabbisacks.org.

“Your threshing season will last until your grape harvest, and your grape harvest will last until the time you plant. You will have your fill of food, and you will dwell securely in your land.” (Vayikra 26:5)

This blessing is promised to the people of Israel on condition that, as a unified nation, they observe the laws of the Torah and live by its spirit. Its promise is quite surprising. Not only will the Israelites have plenty to eat but, as the verse clearly indicates, the Jews will experience an overflow of food. The first season — when produce is brought to the threshing floor — will last until the days of the grape harvest, which, in turn, will continue into the planting season.

Rashi (ad loc.), quoting Torat Kohanim (Sifra), makes an extraordinary statement. He says that the verse is teaching us that “even if you eat only a little, it will be blessed in your stomach.” He seems, then, to understand this verse in an entirely different way from what we would have imagined. It appears that it is not the quantity of food that will increase, but the quality. The food that is consumed will be of such high caliber that even in a year which is not especially blessed, eating just a small amount will provide the same benefit as would eating a large amount.

The explanation of the verse, then, as understood by Torat Kohanim and Rashi, would be that very little food will be used by people throughout the entire year, so that the same amount of food normally consumed in a short period of time will last much longer. Thus, the time of threshing will yield enough food to last until the grape harvest, and so on.

There is, however, a completely different way of looking at this verse, which may hold great meaning for our times. The famous thinker and teacher of musar (Jewish ethics), Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873-1936), mashgiach (spiritual guide) of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, alludes to an even greater miracle that is mentioned in the verse. This time, it is not the quality of the food but the spiritual quality of the human being that will be the causal factor.

According to Rabbi Yerucham, there will be no difference between a year that is blessed and one that is not. Both will produce the same amount and the same quality of food. What will determine the outcome is the people’s attitude to their physical possessions. Depending on their spiritual condition, human beings will either be satisfied with what they have, or will not.

To be satisfied is one of the greatest blessings that can ever be bestowed upon human beings. But this blessing has little to do with the amount of food or belongings that people eat or own. A minimum amount of possessions is plenty. The Torah teaches us that when the people of Israel live in accordance with the requirements of the Torah, mankind will be blessed with a mental state in which matters of possession and food will take on a completely different dimension. This attitude is not something that human beings can develop on their own, but will come about only as a result of their approach toward God’s response and the divine. When people will achieve high moral and spiritual attitudes, they will view the world in a very different light. They will live in what Eric Fromm calls the “being and becoming mode.” One acquires one’s essence and happiness through spiritual growth. (See Erich Fromm, To Have or to Be, London: Abacus Books, 1976) What is of real importance is not what man “has” but what he “is.” And in that moment of realization, satisfaction is no longer the result of possessing more but of being more.

Most remarkably, the Torah emphasizes that, first and foremost, it is human action (observing the commandments) that creates this mindset. Judaism was the first to postulate that mental health and sickness are outcomes of right and wrong living. When people are greedy or ambitious to achieve fame, we see them as annoying and we have contempt for them. They are unhappy individuals, however much they happen to own. The Torah teaches us that they actually suffer from a kind of mental illness, which is the outcome of wrong living.

This idea also relates to the concept of joy. Joy is concomitant with productive activity. It is not a peak experience that ends suddenly, but rather a plateau that is the product of one’s essential human faculties. It is not the ecstatic fire of the moment but the glow that accompanies “being.” It is only with this type of true joy that one is able to be satisfied with the minimum while experiencing it as the maximum.

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  • Jay Lavine

    Indeed, histapkut bamu’at, satisfaction with the little one has, is a cardinal virtue and value of Judaism.

    Another exegesis that complements that of Rashi is that of the 18th century rabbinic authority Jonathan Eybeschutz, whose collection of sermons is known as Yaarot Devash. Expounding on the clause “satisfy us from Your goodness” (“vesabeinu mituvecha”) found in one nusach of the Shemoneh Esrei, he explains that we ask God to satisfy us from *His* goodness, that is to say, from that which is good to *Him*, because, as rendered by the ArtScroll siddur, “Food that is acquired in a tainted manner lacks the holiness to nourish the soul.”

    People who lack the spiritual fulfillment and inner happiness that come from knowing Hashem have a void that they seek to fill in other ways. These include gluttony, materialism, status-consciousness, and adoption of secular ideologies, either of the right-wing or left-wing varieties (depending on their personality tendencies), that become a religion to them, a kind of idolatry. Rather than submitting themselves to Hashem and the Jewish way of life, they constantly seek self-validation through attainment of their ideological goals, at the same time vilifying and projecting their internal anger onto “the other.”

    Both the left-wing and right-wing zealots have, in effect, abandoned their Jewishness, although the latter group often masquerades as being staunchly pro-Jewish and pro-Israel because the need for identification with an exclusive group is a characteristic of the conservative personality.

    Nathan Lopes Cardozo points out that the Torah blessing for Israel is contingent on the unified nation’s observing the laws of the Torah according to its spirit. Indeed, there would be no “Right” or “Left” if that were the case, only the Jewish way. Then Israel would truly be a Jewish state.