Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
I recently was reading an article that happened to mention an interesting study. In the study, researchers in the 1970’s had collected New Year’s resolutions from two groups of kids — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites. They happened to notice an interesting difference between the two groups (which was not relevant to the study they were trying to do). In the “average” group, the kids were focused on goals such as “getting an “a” in class. In the Amish group, though, even though the kids also were focused on goals, they phrased their resolutions very differently. Instead of focusing on the achievement, their resolutions spelled out the process of what they would do to get to the goal. In other words, instead of resolving to get an “a,” the Amish child would resolve to spend more time doing homework. In addition, the Amish kids were more likely to be about things that they were already doing – getting faster at doing chores rather than one of the “average” kids who would be more likely to express a goal of doing something new, such as learning to scuba dive.
As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of another article I had read recently which discussed the seemingly endless research into happiness, and the pursuit of happiness by Americans – and asks whether, in fat, happiness is something that can be pursued at all. The article, drawing on psychological research and the writings of Victor Frankl concludes that rather than pursuing happiness, we should be pursuing meaning. It suggests, “the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.”
Meaning, on the other hand, is the pursuit of service to others, rather than benefit to oneself. In reading those two articles in close proximity, I couldn’t help but think how meaning versus happiness has another distinction – the process of attainment. I have a young son, who as most children do, experimented with cheating at games. It was very difficult to explain to him that simply being declared the winner of a game is meaningless, if one hasn’t won it honestly, having solved the puzzle, or what have you. That’s a level of understanding even many adults do not attain. And partly it’s because we do live in a society in which case merely being the winner is itself the source of accolade – regardless of how it came about, and even being associated with winning, whether or not one has oneself done anything but hang around the “winner” sometimes adds a gloss of glory.
Everything from champion sports stars, to the parties in the political process, seem to prefer winning to achievement. And it is this distinction that I so value in my own understanding of rabbinic Judaism: Jewish law doesn’t express rights, but obligations -rights are protected by each person doing what their duty is; Jewish community focuses not on the individual, but upon the individual in community – some things, you just can’t do by yourself, and so we need to have a care for the other person. The talmud (Berachot 5b) even tells us, “When two people enter a synagogue to pray, and one of them finishes his prayer first and does not wait for the other but leaves, his prayer is torn up before his face. …And more than that, he causes the Divine Presence to remove itself from Israel.”
It strikes me that these pieces are all tied together – when we are too focused on ourselves, instead of pursuing meaning, we end up trying to grasp at happiness. We foolishly think that it is the next thing – the end, instead of the process, which brings happiness, and so it inevitably slides from our grasp. The rabbis weren’t Buddhists – I think they would be miffed to have me take their words as saying that we should not grasp at the achievements of the world as unreal, but their understanding of the “evil impulse,” – that it is a driving force, rather than a wicked one, which enables us to bear children, build businesses and be successful, is spot on, and then it fits right into the rabbinic world view, that those things we want aren’t wicked, but that we have to put sanctity into them for them to mean anything to us, and to do so we have to limit them, direct them, and put them into the service of something greater than ourselves.