Sunday, August 28, 2011

Seeing the Good - A Great Gemara for Finding Happiness

"So, how are things?" How many times do people ask us that simple, innocuous question, really not that interested in an actual answer? And how many times do we feel like the answer isn't as good as we'd like it to be. This is because we evaluate how "things are" not based on how they are, but on how we think that they should be. Our expectations often determine whether we're really happy or not. Despite the fact that my expectations might be unrealistically high, when they aren't met, I'm unhappy with the result. On the other hand, if I can somehow see the amazing good in that which I do have, this abiilty can bring a sense of gratitude, tranquility and happiness.

I give a shiur in Gemara on Shabbat (in Hebrew), and yesterday we came across two important pieces that are worth reading and considering. The Gemara (Berachot 58a) discussing Ben Zoma, writes,
הוא היה אומר: כמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא פת לאכול: חרש, וזרע, וקצר, ועמר, ודש, וזרה, וברר, וטחן, והרקיד, ולש, ואפה, ואחר כך אכל, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלו מתוקנין לפני. וכמה יגיעות יגע אדם הראשון עד שמצא בגד ללבוש: גזז ולבן ונפץ וטוה וארג, ואחר כך מצא בגד ללבוש, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלה מתוקנים לפני. כל אומות שוקדות ובאות לפתח ביתי, ואני משכים ומוצא כל אלו לפני. הוא היה אומר: אורח טוב מהו אומר - כמה טרחות טרח בעל הבית בשבילי, כמה בשר הביא לפני, כמה יין הביא לפני, כמה גלוסקאות הביא לפני, וכל מה שטרח - לא טרח אלא בשבילי. אבל אורח רע מהו אומר - מה טורח טרח בעל הבית זה? פת אחת אכלתי, חתיכה אחת אכלתי, כוס אחד שתיתי, כל טורח שטרח בעל הבית זה - לא טרח אלא בשביל אשתו ובניו. על אורח טוב מהו אומר - +איוב ל"ו+ זכר כי תשגיא פעלו אשר שררו אנשים. על אורח רע כתיב - +איוב ל"ז+ לכן יראוהו אנשים וגו'.
Ben Zoma ...used to say: What labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained bread to eat! He ploughed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound [the sheaves], he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground [them], and sifted [the flour], he kneaded and baked, and then at last he ate; whereas I get up, and find all these things done for me. And how many labours Adam had to carry out before he obtained a garment to wear! He had to shear, wash [the wool], comb it, spin it and weave it, and then at last he obtained a garment to wear; whereas I get up and find all these things done for me. All kinds of craftsmen come early to the door of my house, and I rise in the morning and find all these before me.
He used to say: What does a good guest say? 'How much trouble my host has taken for me! How much meat he has set before me! How much wine he has set before me! How many cakes he has set before me! And all the trouble he has taken was only for my sake!' But what does a bad guest say? 'How much after all has mine host put himself out? I have eaten one piece of bread, I have eaten one slice of meat, I have drunk one cup of wine! All the trouble which my host has taken was only for the sake of his wife and his children!' What does Scripture say of a good guest? Remember that thou magnify his works, where of men have sung. But of a bad guest it is written: Men do therefore fear him; [he regardeth not any that are wise of heart].
All of us find ourselves in Ben Zoma's situation. Thankfully, we don't need to plow our own fields to bake our daily bread. I'm not familiar with anyone who knows how to spin the thread for his own clothing. But do we see the amazing effort that went into ensuring that our phsyical needs have been met. When I open the refrigerator in the morning, I simply take for granted that the food is going to be there, never giving a second's thought to the efforts that entailed getting that food to me. When I go into my closet to pull down what I'm going to wear, forget the fact that I never think of the person who made that pair of pants. I usually don't even appreciate the fact that my wife was the one who washed my shirt for me. Which leads to Ben Zoma's second lesson, which resonates with me especially strongly.
It's so easy to write off the things that other people do for us, as his "bad guest" so easily does. After all, they didn't make the effort for us - they made if for themselves. (Reminds me of that famous Monty Python skit - "What have the Romans Ever Done for Us? Nothing!") But all too often, we take this attitude not with our hosts, but with those we love the most - a spouse, a parent, a sibling or friend - we just take them for granted, which we should never allow ourselves to do.
If we took the time to focus on the effort that goes into meeting our daily needs, and appreicating the good that others do on our behalf, we'd be much happier, content and more fulfilled.