Thursday, September 15, 2011

KI SAVO 5771

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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KI SAVO 5771


Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt’l would often relate that what he felt was the key to everlasting happiness could be understood from the following story:

“Imagine someone is standing on the ledge of the seventieth floor of the Empire State Building in New York, perching to jump.

“You scream to him, "Stop! Don't do it!"

“He turns to you and says "Why shouldn’t I? My business went bankrupt and I’m under indictment for fraud. My wife left me and my children won’t talk to me. All my friends turned their back on me and left me all alone. And this morning the doctor told me I have a rare form of cancer. And to top it off I’m blind from birth. So tell me why should I go on living?"

“You freeze not sure how to respond. Then suddenly the man lets out a cry of joy. “I can see! I don’t know why, but suddenly I can see!”

“Do you think he’ll still jump?

“Of course he wouldn’t” explained Rabbi Weinberg. “He would be so taken and transfixed by the beauty of the world and the joy of seeing that he would be excited by the idea of just walking and staring at every thing in sight. None of his many troubles have gone away and his situation is still grim. But the sense of wonder and exhilaration would make it all worth it.

“And therein lies the secret of eternal happiness. It is hidden in the sense of wonder and excitement of everything we have at our disposal regularly.

If you really appreciate your eyesight, the other pains are insignificant. But if you take it all for granted, then nothing in life will ever truly give you joy.”

In parshas Ki Savo, Moshe Rabbeinu related the tochacha, the ninety-eight foreboding and terrifying curses that would befall the nation if they do not observe the Torah properly. But the parsha also repeatedly mentions the obligation for one to be happy:

“You shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem, your G-d, is giving to you.2

“And you shall slaughter peace offerings and you shall eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d.3

“Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy and a good hear, from an abundance of all.4

In Harvard University, the most widely-attended class is a course about happiness - what it is and how to achieve it. It is taught by an Israeli-born professor of psychology, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar. The first such seminar, which he conducted in 2002, began with eight students. Within five years, the course’s attendance burgeoned to 1,400 registered students.

In his bestseller, “What is Happiness?” Ben-Shahar notes that Psychologist Phillip Brickman analyzed the level of happiness people felt after winning the lottery. Within as short a time as a month, lottery winners returned to their base-level of well being. If they were unhappy before winning they were again that way shortly after. Similarly, and perhaps more surprisingly, accident victims who became paraplegics were often as happy as they were prior to the accident, within as little as a year after the accident.

In addition, Psychologist Daniel Gilbert extended these findings to demonstrate how poor we are at predicting our future emotional states. We think a new house, a promotion, or a publication would make us happy, when in fact these achievements only lead to a temporary spike in our level of well-being. The same applies to negative experiences. The emotional pain that comes with the end of a relationship, losing our job, or the failure of our political candidate does not last long – we soon return to being as happy or unhappy as we were prior to the experience.

Dr. Ben-Shahar describes how, at age 16, he won the Israeli national squash championship, an event that brought the subject of happiness into sharp focus in his life.

During the five years while he was training for the event he felt that something important was missing from his life. He was sure that winning the title would alleviate that empty feeling and help him achieve real happiness. In his words, “After all, it seemed clear to me that the mental and physical exertion were necessary to win the championship. Winning the championship was necessary for fulfillment. Fulfillment was necessary for happiness. This was the logic I operated under.”

When he won the championship, he was indeed ecstatic, happier than he had ever imagined feeling. Following the final match he went out with his family and friends, and celebrated together.

He goes on to describe that after the celebration, he went to his room, sat on his bed and wanted to savor that feeling of supreme happiness. Then suddenly, without warning, the bliss disappeared, and the feeling of emptiness returned with a vengeance. The tears of joy shed only hours earlier turned to tears of pain and helplessness. He tried to convince himself that he was feeling a temporary low following an overwhelming high. But as the days and months unfolded, he did not feel happier; in fact, he was growing even more desolate as he began to see that simply substituting a new goal would not in itself lead him to happiness. It was that experience which compelled him to seek a deeper understanding about happiness.

People often believe that we will truly be happy if they had just a little more. Psychological studies confirm what the Torah taught us long ago – happiness is based on an attitude of appreciation and acceptance, not on how much one owns or how prominent one is. In fact, our Sages warn us that the more one has the more one wants5. Therefore, the truly wealthy person is the one who is happy with what he has6.

Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt’l once quipped that, “People are always looking for the city of happiness, but they don’t realize that happiness is a state of mind!”

The gemara7 notes that Ezra Hasofer enacted that the harsh verses of rebuke be read shortly prior to Rosh Hashana so that ‘תכלה שנה וקללותיה - the year should end along with its curses’.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky zt’l asks how Ezra could be sure that every year would have curses? He made this enactment when the second Temple was first being built. It seems like a dismal prediction to say that we must read the curses at the end of the year because every year will have curses? Is it not possible that there would be a year of prosperity when there would be no curses?

Rabbi Galinsky answers that the definition of blessing and curse is very objective. What one person sees as a wonderful blessing another person may view as a terrible curse.

He explains that when he was a prisoner in Siberia they had hardly any food and suffered terribly from pangs of hunger. The winters were absolutely frigid and the only clothing he had was inadequate to protect him from the brutal cold. He, and the other prisoners, lived with the constant danger of becoming frostbitten.

As Rosh Hashana approached their dream of ‘the year ending with its curses’ meant that they would have a little bread so they wouldn’t starve, and a full set of shoes that weren’t ripped. And if G-d really wanted to shower them with blessing, He would allow them to somehow procure a coat with a warm lining and a scarf. That would be the greatest blessing.

Then, when G-d saved him from Siberia and he returned to more of a life of normalcy where he had enough food to survive, and clothing to at least keep him warm, the definition of blessing and curse changed. At that point ‘the year ending with its curses’ entailed that the following year he would have more money and better food.

The next year such a person could desire a bigger house with a nicer coach, etc.

Mankind will always feel that there are curses, no matter how much one is blessed with. Unless one trains himself to appreciate what he has he will always be dissatisfied and see his ‘lack’ as a curse. It is that negative outlook that we hope we will be able to eradicate from within ourselves as the new year concludes. In that sense it’s up to us.

One person may view a certain lifestyle as a curse, but if that person is able to feel happy with what he has, it is he who is rich!

There was once an acknowledged artist who invited his friends to his gallery to witness the uncovering of his new painting entitled “The Door to Happiness.” When he presented the painting the assemblage marveled at the beauty and color, the wood grain captured on canvas, and the outstanding craftsmanship. The painter announced that there was a flaw in the painting and he wanted to see who was keen enough to notice it. Try as they might no one could find any flaw in the masterpiece, until one clever observer remarked that there was no handle on the door. Everyone gasped when they realized the now glaring omission. The artist smiled confidently, and explained, “This is the door to happiness. It is opened from the inside.”

“You shall rejoice with all the good that G-d is giving to you”

“May the year end with all of its curses”

1 Based on the speech given at Kehillat New Hempstead, Shabbos Kodesh parshas Ki Savo 5770
2 26:11- when a farmer would bring his bikkurim (‘first fruits’) to the Bais Hamikdash
3 27:7 – when setting up the altar on Mount Gerizim and Mount Eival
4 28:47 – the reason the curses befall the nation
5 See Koheles Rabbah 1:13; 3:10
6 Avos 4:1
7 Megillah 31b


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