Essays 2019 / Personal Growth
We live in a generation where everything is available. Not only is it accessible, but it is there in an instant. The whole world is at our fingertips. Overnight delivery, one-click ordering and instant messaging are just some examples of how we expect our world to operate. At the same time, we find an implausible focus in society on the self. The amount of material and resources claiming to aid us in finding happiness and satisfaction and the meaning of all is endless. Not only that, but we want it to happen as soon as possible. Books and essays promise to achieve this in “just 5 steps”. Why then, is the world we live in filled with so much unhappiness and dissatisfaction? It’s a goal that everyone is trying to attain and invariably failing to achieve. What is the cause?
In this essay, we will attempt to unravel this based on the Chassidic view of man, and particularly, a Jew’s essential make up and their role in this world.
Self-gratification: A goal in itself
Much of this current trend can be linked to self–gratification. The society we live in today is all about satisfying ourselves through instant gratification. We want it and we want it now. We make choices based on what will give us pleasure in the moment, without giving any prior thought to what its consequences will be. Any process which contains in it work and struggle appears daunting and uncomfortable, so instead we turn our back on it and rather opt for the easy solution. The effect of this attitude is that the benefits, i.e. that instant surge of happiness, lasts for the same timespan as the effort invested in it. As quickly as it comes, it departs, leaving us to search for the next instantaneous solution to give us the satisfaction we seek.
We can break down the motivation behind self and instant gratification into two parts:
- The aversion to hard work
- Seeing self-satisfaction as an end goal in itself
Let us address these two components and explain why Chassidus completely opposes these ideas, exploring how self-gratification is in fact the polar opposite of man’s purpose in this world. Doing so, we will be able to answer our question above.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe discusses(1) an interesting medrash(2) that is brought about our forefather Abraham (Avraham Avinu). Bereishis Rabba says that Avraham went around to observe all the other nations. He noticed that they were just focused on enjoying life. He then came to Canaan and saw that they were a hardworking people. Because of this, he wanted to have his portion in that land. The Rebbe asks: the Canaanim were not, by any means, a refined or distinguished people. Why then did Avraham want to have his nation come from this place just by virtue of their ability to work hard? The Gemara Sanhedrin(3) states that man was made to work hard. The first thing that we need to have is the ability to toil. After this, we can factor in other aspects, like Yiddishkeit and refinement. However, first and foremost, the prime attribute we need is to work hard in all aspects of our life. Once this is in place, all the other necessary components will fall into place. This addresses the first root of instant gratification: the inability to toil in something to accomplish a far-reaching goal.
Focusing on another, rather than oneself
In Machsheves HaChassidus(4) , R’ Yoel Kahn brings a comparison between a bird and a Jew. A bird’s offspring will, for all eternity, remain a bird and will at no point ever become a tree. In the same vein, a Jew will always give birth to a Jew. What, then, is the make-up of a Jew? A Jewish person, in his essence, has the ability to love. So, when we love and we give, we are actually fulfilling our essential quality. We learn that Yishmael, son of Avraham Avinu and Eisav, son of our forefather Isaac (Yitzchak Avinu) weren’t considered children of their respective parents. Why? Because they didn’t have that love which is an intrinsic part of each of us, and is inherited by virtue of being born a Jew.
This concept stands in direct contrast to the second source of self-gratification; the fact that that the end goal is simply to satisfy oneself. Rather than looking outward to give to another, thereby expressing the core of who we are, we simply focus on what we can do for ourselves.
Short term effort leads to short term results
Above, we discussed the Chassidic response to the motivators of instant-gratification. Let us now explore the impact of this phenomenon.
A famous experiment was conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Stanford researchers(5). A young child was left alone in a room with a marshmallow. He was told that if he waited 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow in front of him, he would receive an additional one. The studies showed that those children who had managed to resist temptation for a short-term reward, performed better later on in their lives. They were able to work harder to reap long-term benefits. This example shows the scientifically proven benefits of delayedgratification as opposed to satisfying ones desires promptly. Let’s look at how Chassidus views this concept.
In the introduction to Tanya(6) , the Alter Rebbe discusses the advantage of Derech Arucha u’Ktzara (the long – short way) over Derech Ktzara V’arucha (the short – long way). These are two different processes and approaches to achieving ones objective. In order to explain, I will bring an analogy(7) to demonstrate these two approaches. The Tanna, R’ Yehoshua Ben Chananya, was once walking when he came upon a young child. He asked the youngster how to travel to the city. The child responded that there were two paths which he could take. The short yet long way, or, the long yet short way. R’ Yehoshua ben Chananya requested that he tell him the short yet long way. He followed the youth’s instruction and shortly thereafter arrived at the city to find that it was surrounded by many fields and gardens and it was impossible to enter. He returned to the boy and questioned him as to why he had led him on this path which he promised him was a short way. The boy responded that he had in fact mentioned that it was also long.
As we can see in this analogy, often the short-long way – the easier or shorter road, is in fact longer because one’s goal is not actually reached successfully. Rather, the person is given a false sense of achievement which is not actualized. The long-short way, on the other hand, is one of hard work which, although it contains ups and downs, is a path of surety which guarantees eventual triumph. Often, this involves recognising that the success itself is in the journey and not just in the end goal. This approach forms a powerful argument against the concept of immediate gratification and instant results.
We see a cohesion of all these ideas in our forefather Jacob (Yaakov Avinu)’s life(8).
When Yaakov was forced to leave his home, G-d promised that He would be with him and take care of him wherever he would go. However, Yaakov later adds to this a request that Gd return him to his home “B’Shalom” – “in peace”, which can also be translated as “complete”. Isn’t G-d’s original promise to Yaakov the ultimate blessing? Why did he request more? What was so important about this ‘completeness’?
We can suggest that Yaakov was not satisfied with simply being, even if no harm would come to him. He wanted to be a complete and whole person. How is this achieved? Through implementing the two components that are ultimately our essence: hard work and the inherent ability to love and give to others. When Yaakov was in Lavan’s house we find that he personified both of these aspects. He worked extremely hard for Lavan, his uncle, over many years and built a large family with love and devotion. And indeed, the Torah testifies that on his return, “Yaakov came to the city of Shechem – complete” (9).
The lesson learned from Yaakov is that when we get in touch with who we truly are, putting in real effort and expressing our intrinsic love for another, this reveals our essence and brings about true happiness, satisfaction and a wholeness within ourselves.
I don’t want to work hard!
Guess what? When I sat down to write this essay I really didn’t want to put in the effort. All I wanted to do was curl up with a good book and a cup of coffee and be done with it. But sitting now, having completed it, I can certainly confirm that hard work is truly fulfilling!
- Change your mind-set: When faced with a challenge, grab the Chassidic glasses and look at it through that lens. Realise that hard work is what we were created for. It is an essential part of us. You don’t need to create the ability to put in the effort, it is naturally bestowed in you. Just allow it to shine through.
- Develop your appreciation for the accomplishments of hard work: Choose one day a week, and take on a task which requires exertion and see it through to the end. Even if it’s a menial task, such as raking the lawn, experience the satisfaction and sense of fulfilment that is derived from true effort. Hold onto that feeling and use it to motivate you the next time you’re faced with a difficult task. You’ll also find that over time, hard work will come more naturally to you.
Overcoming your focus on self
- At a time when you have an instinctive need to do something to make yourself happy in the moment, take a minute beforehand and do something for someone else which expresses your care and love for them. Message a friend you haven’t seen in a while; pick up something that everyone else has overlooked; give a coin to Tzedakah. You’ll be surprised at how you’ll develop a taste for doing for others, even more than for yourself.
When you need to accomplish something…
- When working towards a goal, we may be faced with struggles, pitfalls and hardships. Often this makes us feel like we want to just give up. However, realising that the journey itself is today’s accomplishment, and is not merely a means to an end, gives significance to those difficulties and turns them into successes. What better motivation is there to keep on going! And with this approach, once you achieve your goal, it will be true and lasting.
1 Likutei Sichos, chelek 15, sicha on Parshas Lech Lecha
2 Beraishis Rabba, perek 39, verse 8
3 Gemara Sanhedrin, 99B
4 Machsheves Hachasidus, chelek rishon (first chapter)
5 Mischel, Walter; Ebbesen, Ebbe B.; Raskoff Zeiss, Antonette (1972). “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 21 (2): 204–218. doi:10.1037/h0032198. ISSN 0022-3514. PMID 5010404.
6 Tanya, hakdoma (introduction), Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe)
7 Gemara Eruvin, 53B
8 Genesis, Parshas Vayetzei, perek 28
9 Genesis, Parshas Vayishlach, perek 33