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If you’re happy and you know it…
By Rabbanith Ruth Menashe
Imagine a lady, from two or three generations ago, taking a tour of a modern mall. She moves from a breathtaking jewelry store with dazzling diamonds and shining gold to a high-tech electronics store with all the latest gadgets.
She moves from one clothing store to the next, amazed at the display of the selections of styles, fabrics and brand names. Even a visit to the supermarket is a unique experience, with its crowded shelves containing an enormous variety of produce and other items.
What can we imagine would be going through this lady’s mind? Perhaps she would be comparing this new experience to what she remembered from her past. Perhaps she will think: “With this plethora of choices, luxuries and varieties, this generation must be an exceptionally happy one.” Why then, is it, that depression is so common in our generation? Where have the simple pleasures of life disappeared to?
The Ben Ish Hai, in his famous work “the Laws for Women,” which he wrote specifically for women, relates the following anecdote:
A king, accompanied by one of his ministers, went out for a walk one night. On their way they passed the local garbage dump and noticed that there was a light flickering from inside. As they approached the source of light, they discovered a poor couple who set up an “apartment” for themselves right in the heart of the compound of the garbage dump. The couple managed to collect some old rags which they used for clothing, lit a kerosene lamp for light, and piled up rocks which they used as a table. Food, that others had discarded and was gathered by them, was then served. Broken glasses were used as drinking cups.
The lady was accompanying her husband’s singing on a tambourine and sang along with him. He poured some water into one of their broken glasses and drank to her health and she reciprocated. He referred to her as his queen and she referred to him as her king.
The king was stunned by the intensity of their happiness and the conditions of their “abode.” He approached them and queried the rare combination of their joy and somewhat squalid living conditions to which they replied: “Today we had enough food to satisfy us, though it was only dry bread and a small portion of rice. We don’t feel that there is anyone more satisfied than we are, or ones who have a better house. We have no worries and our joy is enormous.” The king, upon hearing this, did not stop blessing them.
There is a slightly different version to this story which ends a little differently. According to the second version, the king returned to this couple with a gift of many gold coins to show his admiration. Some time later the king returned to visit them again and he found, to his surprise, the vibes of joy and happiness had been replaced with ones of sadness and grief. The couple begged the king to take the gold coins away from them. They longed to return to their previous state.
One message that we can learn from this story is that it’s human nature to always want more and never be satisfied. They advise us, therefore, to always look at those who have less than we do when it comes to materialistic matters and possessions. Being satisfied with what we have, and not permitting ourselves to get caught up in the constant desire to have more worldly possessions, is what will bring us real happiness. As they say when a man dies, more than half his desires remain unfulfilled.
Another powerful lesson to be learned from this story is that the emotions of happiness and sadness emanate from us. Each one of us can and should be in control of our emotions and should minimize how much external factors affect our moods. The level of our financial success, academic achievement and so on, may be a reason for feeling dejected or depressed, but can be overridden. Hakham Eli’ezer Papo (author of the Pele Yo’es) writes that our control over our emotions should be such, that when we want to be happy, we should feel happiness and when we wish to be sad, we should feel sadness (this clearly refers to circumstances where this is appropriate). We have the ability and power to overcome and control our emotions.
Owning breathtaking jewelry and having high-tech electronics will not bring us true happiness. These pleasures are short-lived. Let us cast aside the pursuit of the physical pleasure that are so prevalent in today’s society, in favor of what gives true meaning to life. And these are the pleasures we obtain by seeing the sun breaking through the clouds on a winter’s day, hearing the laughter of our small children, and by emphasizing our spiritual sides of Torah, whose pleasures are everlasting.
Rav Eliezer Papo, the Pele Yoetz, women’s torah, rabbanit ruth menashe, rebbetzin ruth menashe, midrash ben ish hai, midrash ben ish chai