Sunday, July 24, 2005

The Truth About Self-Nullification and Happiness


As a continuation of my conversation with my Rabbi, I wanted to know if what was written in Rabbi Dubov's "Jewish F.A.Q.'s" book [by AskMoses.com] was literally true, or was it hokey BS that religious people use to try to entice lost souls into becoming religious. Basically, in the summary section it says "A life of Torah and mitzvot is the surest path to a good life. It is the very best thing for a human being and will bring him to the greatest fulfillment in this world." [For my non-Jewish readers, note that it said "human being", and not "Jewish person". Keep this in mind when you learn about the 7 Noahide Laws to which non-Jews are obligated to keep.]

Furthermore, the text said:
"In short, if a person wants to have good relationships with his parents, spouse or children he should follow the directives of the Torah. If he wants to have a healthy body he should follow the laws of Kashrut. If he wants to create healthy children he should keep the laws of Taharat Hamishpachah (the laws of family purity). If he wants to have a healthy mind and heart he should lay Tefillin and study Torah. To create a healthy atmosphere at home he should create a home where Torah is studied and mitzvot are kept. If he wants family dialogue he should have a Friday night table upon which words of Torah are discussed. If he wishes to be protected he should have a mezuzah on his door. If he wishes for Divine benevolence he must dispense charity to the needs. These are the pathways, not only to bliss in the World to Come, but also to a meaningful and fulfilling life in this world."

After I read this simplistic paragraph, I was floored. I thought to myself, "is it this simple?? Do X, Y, then Z, and then your life will be taken care of?? Perhaps this is the secret of the Jewish People's survival over the years, and perhaps it could be my reality too if I did these things.

I spoke to the rabbi (my mashpia) about this and I wanted him to prove to me that this was objectively true using statistics and secular logic. What I wanted to know, and in truth, this is the question I have been asking myself this whole time on the blog, is "if I lead a religious life, will I find happiness and fulfillment?"

In short, the rabbi went through my achievements in my life and asked me how I felt about each one. College. Public Speaking. Law School. Grades. Relationships. Accomplishments, etc. From each achievement, I felt nice, but we came to the conclusion that my accomplishments are not making me a happy person because the pleasure I derive from my accomplishments are ego-based, and by its nature, ego (in Hebrew, ga'aiva) is never satisfied. When I become a patent attorney and I make $100,000, and I work and make the law firm millions of dollars, I will feel like I deserve a salary of $150,000. When I make $150,000, and I make the firm even more money, I will want $200,000. In other words, I will never be satisfied with my accomplishments, and I will always be hungering for more. Apply this to many life scenarios and you'll see my point. Counter to logic and modern-day self-help psychology, what you work for and achieve does not make you happy.

However, if I won $1 million dollars on a lotto ticket, we both know I would be jumping for joy! Why? Because I didn't deserve it, and it was given to me. Similarly with one's wife in the shidduch system. In a way, the woman is given to the man and vice versa. They didn't do anything to find the other person, yet the quality of both their lives are increased exponentially because they were introduced to each other. This is true in many areas of life. The general rule is when you think about benefits and good things that have come to you that you did not deserve, these are the things that cause you real happiness. Think of your children. Why is this so? Because most people are put in awe and are silenced when they think that something like this has come to them. The Hebrew word for this sort of experience is bitul, a Chassidic concept that many people don't understand. The point here is that true happiness comes not from what one does, but by focusing on what has been given to him or her in life.

This is why it says in Chassidic writings that one should be happy that one is given a soul. Why should I be happy that I have a soul? Because it was a gift to me, loaned to my body's use for the years on am on this planet. So too with the opportunities in life that have presented themselves to me, and the people that have come into my life, and my wife and my children (when they come). These are all things that I might not deserve, but nevertheless I pray will have come to me.

So the general distinction that I learned from our conversation was that happiness is not achieved by focusing on one's own self-worth or one's achievements. These are all temporary, and the pleasures felt by an accomplishment fade over time. Think about that "A+" you received in Art or Gym in the third grade of elementary school. Does this achievement still excite you? Rather, happiness is achieved by feeling awe and nullification (bitul) towards the things, people and experiences that have come into your life (your memories) that you did little or nothing to influence their entry into your life. Focusing on these things is what makes a person happy.

Of course I need to think about this and apply it to my own life, however intuitively, this sounds like it is emes (truth).

12 comments:

2R said...

To add, You feel happy/fulfilled/satisfied when you acheive goals, and know what direction you are going in. The Torah life fills us with goals and boundries. Instead of searching for something to accomplish, and some sort of guidlines, we are given them. By "staying in the lines" and coloring the picture you feel more accomplised then if you were given a blank sheet of paper and were told to draw. Then we can sit back and look at the picture and now we did what we were supposed to do...

Rivka said...

Your argument is totally faulty. You would be happy with the million bucks for what you think it would do to improve your life, but look at all the people who have won the lottery for real: most of them DON'T think it improved their lives, and some of them REGRET winning at all.

By your reasoning, I should not strive for any goals whatsoever, because...then I would actually be EARNING something I'm working towards?? Like this is bad?? Instead I should just sit back and hope things drop into my life? Depend on miracles to save me, so I can prove to myself that God wanted me to have it?

Zoe Strickman said...

Rivka,
Your argument seems logical. After reading your comment, I don't know what the answer is. Of course we feel good about our accomplishments, and we do let them define us. But the explanation about its source in gaiva (ego) makes sense to me, and the whole Chassidic concept of bitul seems to be the foundation to all Jewish joy as I understand it.

Might I just have used bad examples? It makes sense to me that when dealing with gaiva and bitul, bitul will win out when it comes to true happiness, otherwise it wouldn't be the Torah way of service. What do you think?

Rowan said...

oh, on a side note, if I've understood you correctly on my blog, if I make like everything is fine, and keep my problems and feelings to my self, am I not keeping so much information from my husband that we are coming apart at the seams anyways?

Rebeljew said...

"If he wants to have a healthy body he should follow the laws of Kashrut. If he wants to create healthy children he should keep the laws of Taharat Hamishpachah (the laws of family purity). If he wants to have a healthy mind and heart he should lay Tefillin and study Torah."

Nowhere in mesora is it stated that kashrus, Taharas HaMishpacha or Tefillin are for health or personal reasons. On the contrary, they are mitzvos "she'hagoyim maligim bahem". This means clearly that there are not any personal reasons for these meitzvos but simply the will of G-d.

Rowan said...

Zoe: the keys to finding happiness according to your judaism, seem very similar in theory to what in my faith we'd call our blessings, or gifts bestowed upon us by God that we should be thankful for, and aim to think of daily. I think as a Christian, myself as well as others, we tend to forget to put our focus on this, and instead trouble ourselves with worries, however, our faith dictates that if you trust in the Lord and thank him for our blessings, and be grateful of them, our troubles will be sorted out by Him. This may be the highest form of being a true Christian I can think of, I can even remember the ones who in church were truly like this, and you know what? They appeared tobe the happiest, adn were certainly the holiest I knew of.

Rowan said...

also, by reading your comments here, I get the distinct impression of a war between faith and self-direction. If you have blind faith, real faith, then your beliefs will guide you to more blessings and accomplishments. I think that that's the point. If you believe in something, it is without evidence, or proof or quantifiable data, it is a belief. Therefore, how can measure really? You need to trust in it. Not question it. You should attempt to live in a holy manner, and the only way you'll really know if it works to bring you happiness, is to believe undoubtedly that it WILL because God allows it.

Eli7 said...

Zoe, I'm not quite sure I buy this. My grades, for example, do make me happy. Does that mean I'm satisfied? No. But they absolutely do make me happy.

In fact, there's a Jewish concept (I can't remember where I've heard it, but I've heard it more than once) that jealousy is all about the fact that you feel you're entitled to something. You would be jealous if your friend won the lottery because you would feel you deserve it as much as he does. Point being, we do believe we deserve these things, as non-sensical as that may be.

And striving for more doesn't always mean you're not happy with what you have. In fact, that striving is what gets things done; you should never be satisfied with what you have. And my guess is, if you won the lottery it wouldn't take you too long to want more anyway. And money, as a general rule, does not make you happy.

Zoe Strickman said...

Yeah, the money example is probably a bad one, but I'm sticking to the logic of the two concepts of bitul and gaiva to direct one's happiness. I'm at the point where I'm starting to grasp that concept. [--if any of the readers want me to go into it in more depth, let me know and I'll explain the two concepts--]. In short, Bitul (nullification / awe) as far as I understand it will make someone happy, and gaiva (ego) will always make a person unhappy in the end.

Rebeljew, as for your point that these are not stated in mesora, I don't know the answer. I'll try to ask the rabbi next time I see him for a source in torah. Off the top of my head I am thinking of where G-d says "If you keep my rules, I'll make rain fall in its proper time, wheat grow, etc... if you don't, I'll kick your butt.. [obviously not actual words used]" Maybe that is the source for those comments.

ONE MORE THING: When anyone posts something in Hebrew, (i.e. "she'hagoyim maligim bahem"), keep in mind that I'm not that advanced and I don't always understand the Hebrew, as I am only frum (religious) for five years and counting. We also have many good non-Jewish readers who are learning about yiddishkeit (Judaism) through our posts.

--SO, if you would be willing to bear with me, please put definitions in perenthesis after the Hebrew words you use that way we know exactly what is being said.

By the way, RebelJew, because I am such a simple Jew, I've learned halacha (Jewish law) from Shulchan Auruch, kitzur, and the Alter Rebbe's Shulchan Aruch Harav. I'm not familiar with Mesorah. I've heard this before, but I don't know what it is. Can you please explain it to me? Thanks..

other said...

Look, here's the thing. There is a difference between being arrogant about your accomplishments, and being proud of yourself as a person. I think there is a story in the Gemara of a Rabbi slapping another person for insulting him as a Rabbi. Not because he was arrogant or insulted, but because he knew what kind of Rabbi he was and he knew he didn't deserve the guy's comments. One should try to be humble and respectful, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't be proud of one's accomplishments. And it CERTAINLY doesn't mean that one should stop trying to accomplish anything at all.

Rowan said...

Zoe, can I interview you for my blog? A bunch of us are conducting a little experiment whereby we're creating our own sort of meme on a more personalized basis. So, what do you say?

Stacey said...

I lead a very happy and fulfilled life and I am not Chasidic or Orthodox and never will be. It is just not me.

Some would argue that that life style is a crutch.