In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson writes of an individual’s right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Just a few months ago, Dennis Prager echoed that statement, proclaiming man’s greatest goal to be attaining a true sense of inner happiness.
Until a few years ago, I believed that. But when my wife and son developed health problems, my purpose on this earth seemed to have little to do with pursuing happiness. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all the wonderful things I have, bli ayin hara. And it’s not that I don’t know that whatever bad I may experience, matters could always be considerably worse. But I struggle to reconcile the pain I see against the rosy, cheerful pursuing-happiness backdrop. For every birth, there is a painful death. For every simcha, another sorrow.
Even at a simcha, I can’t seem to escape the pain of seeing friends with Alzheimer’s, strokes, or cancer, which affects not only them, but their loved ones, too, who more often than not are forced to become caretakers.
Baruch Hashem, I am equipped with spiritual armor, and I try to focus on G-ds infinite kindness. I do sometimes find myself battling demons, however. Last month I attended a Shabbaton where I had the pleasure of meeting a young rabbi who recently lost his wife and is raising three children. He is such an inspiration because he always smiles when he has every reason not too.
When he saw me, he asked how I was doing given the recent news that my son’s brain tumor had started growing again. I said I was having a difficult time achieving life’s ultimate: happiness. We went back and forth, and finally I said:
“Rabbi, six million Jews were killed mercilessly. Anyone who is related to these victims or saw the horror they went through cannot forget the evil and pain they experienced. Every mother and father who buries a child or must endure treatments cannot possibly achieve a fully happy life.”
In response, he said words that changed my understanding of what we’re doing here: “Avi,” he said, “who ever said that life’s main objective was predicated on being happy? We’re here for one reason only, to complete our mission by keeping Hashem’s Torah. Plain and simple. Each person endures different challenges for different reasons that only G-d knows. Our job is to fulfill the will of Hashem and, by doing that, according to the Ramchal, man can attain true closeness and happiness with G-d.”
It was a tough pill to swallow, but it made sense to me. Happiness is not the ultimate goal. A person can live a selfish existence, never helping others and feeding his material needs, and be very happy indeed. Happy, too, is the college boy who sleeps late, skips classes, doesn’t study, parties all the time, and fails his classes.
Sure, he’s happy at the time, but what does that have to do with what he went to school for? Fulfilling our mission, doing the right thing and bringing the light of G-d into the world – and finding happiness within that – is the ultimate goal. An athlete is never happy training for years, but when he takes home the gold, he couldn’t be happier and more proud.
I have received words of encouragement from people I haven’t spoken to in 20 years and have heard of countless Tehillim groups, no lashon hara marathons, commitments to be quieter in shul, and other mitzvah campaigns that have been launched to help bring a refuah to my son, Binyamin Simcha ben Adina Minya. We can’t stop the rain from coming down, but we can shield ourselves, even within the darkness, by Klal Yisrael uniting, thereby bringing the light of Hashem into the world.
In that, I find happiness.