What do children look forward to most?
A) School, B) Playing at home, or C) A family vacation to Disney World?
A quick survey shows the answer is undoubtedly C.
Now, during which of the above activities are children most likely to fight, kvetch, and complain?
The surprising answer to this question is most likely also choice C.
Many children don’t like school and regularly gripe about homework or going to school. Still, they usually don’t complain all that much during school. On some level, they understand that this is their responsibility and part of the reality of life, so they make the best of it.
At home, children may complain more, but they can often occupy themselves with play for hours. Occasionally there is sibling rivalry, fighting, and the inevitable cries of “I’m bored!” But healthy families develop a workable day-to-day routine that gets them through with minimal kvetching and complaining.
Meanwhile, the intrinsic stress of family vacations is the stuff of legend.
While these examples of dissatisfaction and complaining often involve children, adults aren’t much better when it comes to being satisfied. Materialistic pleasures rarely live up to the hype.
The Talmud teaches that physical pleasures are largely illusory. We have an endless drive to get more – fooling ourselves into believing that girl, car, home, or vacation will bring us elusive happiness. But by their very essence, fleeting materialistic things can’t provide happiness.
A parable is told about a princess who gets lost in the forest and is taken in by a well-meaning commoner. Despite his good intentions, he can never satisfy her royal tastes. She has experienced the creme de la creme and won’t settle for less.
The princess, say the Kabbalists, represents our soul. As a spark of the Divine, it yearns for the eternal; in vain, we try to satisfy it with a good steak and a cruise to the Bahamas. No wonder some people spend lifetimes wondering why they haven’t achieved true happiness.
For the record, I am a big fan of family vacations and a good steak, and I am unlikely to turn down an offer to fly first class to a choice vacation destination. The Torah does not condone ascetic lifestyles and commands us to enjoy the pleasures of this world at the right time and within the correct parameters.
But chasing physical pleasures can’t be our main focus.
This week’s Torah portion tells us about our patriarch, Yaakov, and how he achieved great wealth. But wealth was never his primary desire. At the beginning of the Torah portion, we find Yaakov asking G-d to take care of his physical needs; he specifically asks for nothing more than essential clothing and some bread to eat. This is Yaakov’s essence. Even when becoming wealthy later on, he uses his wealth to serve G-d. His fundamental priorities never change; he always remains satisfied with simple bread.
This is the paradoxical reality of our physical world: keeping one’s expectations and desires to a minimum is more likely to yield happiness. Those who chase the ever-increasing need for pleasures and inanimate objects constantly struggle to find true satisfaction. The soul can only connect to the Divine when our noisy physical pursuits are reigned in.
So next year, sleep in on Black Friday. That high you get from finding the best deal won’t bring lasting happiness. The pursuit of materialism will only increase a thirst that can never be quenched.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.