The Torah obligates a person to be happy. It is part of the Commandment to bring the First Fruits: “And you shall rejoice in all the good which Hashem your G-d has given to you and to your family…” [26:11] And conversely, the Torah predicts that punishments will come to the Jewish Nation “In compensation for your failure to serve Hashem your G-d with joy and with happiness of heart, from an abundance of all.” [28:47]
What does this mean? If a person has everything he needs, of course he will be happy to come to the Temple with his offering and express his gratitude. And if, on the other hand, he has nothing to bring, the Commandment of the first fruits (and the Commandment to be happy) doesn’t apply. So what is the importance, the relevance, of telling a person to be happy? The Chumash Rav Peninim addresses this question, as Rav Rubenstein explained.
Imagine a farmer who owns a modest few acres of land. He works through the year, harvests his crop, and knows that he’ll be able to feed his family. He’s content, because he has all that he needs. He fulfills the saying in Chapters of the Fathers: “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.”
But before he can take advantage of that crop, he knows he has to bring his first fruits. So he saddles his donkey, fills a small bag with loaves of bread and a few clusters of grapes, and heads off for Jerusalem. After traveling for a while, he reaches the main highway.
And this is where Rabbi Rubenstein would tell us, “he isn’t so happy anymore.”
He gets to the main road, but needs to wait — a huge caravan is passing. There is a huge carriage with extraordinarily large and beautiful grapes. The next is piled high with loaves of bread. And in the third sits the owner of the horses, carriages, farmland and crop.
The farmer looks at his small bag of first fruits. Has anything changed? Only his perception. His satisfaction is replaced by jealousy, because someone else has all that wealth.
This is what the Commandment to be happy with what Hashem has given us is all about. No one else’s portion is our own. It is so tempting to look around and try to “keep up with the Joneses.” Our obligation is to realize that Hashem gives each person what he or she needs.
One of the leading rabbis and teachers alive today is Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman shlit”a of Bnei Brak. His words wield tremendous power in the Orthodox world — including several Knesset members who turn to him for guidance. Meanwhile, his “headquarters” is a tiny, deteriorating apartment. Even his family was surprised to hear him describe it as “such a nice house!”
Yet that’s what the Mitzvah is all about. We get what is sufficient for our needs. Yes, there are people who own vast wealth, but they have their own situation and their own challenges — they are not our own.
The Chapters of the Fathers also says that jealousy is one of the things that “removes a person from the world.” It occurs to me that in extreme cases, this is literally true. There was a recent story of a man so outraged by his perception of injustice and lack of fairness that he attacked three other people who had, in his eyes, been more fortunate and part of the injustice — and when police caught up with him, he took his own life.
While we can hope that none of our readers are at risk of anything similar, we can still learn a valuable lesson: trying to keep up with others only leads to bad decision-making. Our Commandment is to “rejoice in all the good which Hashem your G-d has given to you and to your family.” As we approach Rosh HaShanah, let us ask for His blessings for success, health, life — and the wisdom to perceive the abundant kindness He gives us.