Happiness is a Choice (Shabbos 130)

A number of years ago, I officiated at a wedding of an Ashkenazi groom and Sephardic bride.  I did my best to educate myself and prepare for the divergent family customs, but there was one that came as a complete surprise.  One big difference in custom between the two communities is the amount of money inscribed in the ketubah, required by the groom as a pay-out in the case of separation.  Ashkenazim have a token fixed sum, while Sephardim insert a mutually agreed upon number.  Just prior to the chupah, we were sitting at the tish, about to sign the ketubah, when the bride’s father suddenly made an extraordinary demand.

“One million dollars,” he said, “I want one million dollars for my daughter, should anything go awry.  The groom’s father is a medical specialist.  You can afford it.”  The groom’s father was mortified.  The guests were shifting uncomfortably in their seats.  Despite all my preparation, I wasn’t ready for this.  I endeavoured to prevail upon the father of the bride to be a little more reasonable, but all to no avail.

“This is preposterous,” the physician finally stammered, “Son, we’re out of here.  Grab your things, let’s go.  The mothers began to cry.  Sharp words were flying between the guests of the bride and groom.  Until finally, with the assistance of other rabbis present, we managed to convince the bride’s father to soften his demands, and we came up with a number that would be acceptable to the groom’s family, albeit through gritted teeth.  The wedding proceeded, although to say it was tense under the chupah would be an understatement.

Following the ceremony, family and friends gathered in the hall for the reception.  As one does, I went over to the father of the bride to wish him mazal tov.  He sensed I was still sweating and he chuckled.  “You didn’t get that, did you?” he tells me.
“What are you talking about?” I replied.
“Our minhag concerning the sum of money in the ketubah.”
“Well, yes, I understand that it’s not a fixed sum like for Ashkenazim,” I said, “but admittedly, I was a little taken aback when you asked for a million dollars.”
“Exactly,” he responded, “I told you, you didn’t get it.  When I asked for a million dollars, the groom’s father should have made a counter offer of ten dollars. I would have then conceded some ground.  Slowly but surely, we would have played it out until we arrived at a reasonable amount.  That’s our minhag!”

תַּנְיָא, רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר: כׇּל מִצְוָה שֶׁקִּיבְּלוּ עֲלֵיהֶם בְּשִׂמְחָה, כְּגוֹן מִילָה, דִּכְתִיב: ״שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי עַל אִמְרָתֶךָ כְּמוֹצֵא שָׁלָל רָב״ — עֲדַיִין עוֹשִׂין אוֹתָהּ בְּשִׂמְחָה. וְכׇל מִצְוָה שֶׁקִּבְּלוּ עֲלֵיהֶם בִּקְטָטָה, כְּגוֹן עֲרָיוֹת, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם בּוֹכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחוֹתָיו״, עַל עִסְקֵי מִשְׁפְּחוֹתָיו — עֲדַיִין עוֹשִׂין אוֹתָהּ בִּקְטָטָה, דְּלֵיכָּא כְּתוּבָּה דְּלָא רָמוּ בַּהּ תִּיגְרָא.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Every mitzvah that they accepted upon themselves with joy, such as circumcision, as it is written: “I rejoice at Your word as one who finds great spoil”, they still perform with joy. And every mitzvah that they accepted upon themselves with contentiousness, such as the marital relationship regulations, as it is written: “And Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family”, meaning over matters pertaining to family life, they still perform with contentiousness. For there is no ketubah (marriage contract) in which contentiousness does not arise.

There’s nothing inherently happy about a bris.  It’s a precarious, physically unnecessary, operation performed on a newborn baby.  Intuitively, it should be a mitzvah filled with great trepidation and reluctance.  And yet, it is a day full of joy.

Conversely, the lead up to a wedding should be perfect bliss. Finally, two halves of a soul have found one another.  There should be no greater happiness.  And yet, it can be quite a troubling time as the two families wrangle over wedding deals and marriage provisions, desperately seeking common ground.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel explains this conundrum.  Since our forefather Avraham accepted the mitzvah of bris milah with joy, as did our ancestors prior to the Exodus from Egypt, it became a joyful mitzvah for all eternity.  Meanwhile, when our ancestors were given a strict definition of marriage, they were less than pleased.  Consequently, even as the wedding day approaches, the experience is rarely free of contention.

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel is offering a powerful message about attitude.  Everyone wants to be happy in life.  What goods and services do you need to achieve happiness?  What activities should you engage in to bring joy into your life?  The answer it, no activity will make you happy on account of the essence of the event itself.  The level of happiness will depend upon your attitude and approach.

If you accept God’s decrees upon your life with joy and gratitude, then that mood will prevail.  Indeed, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers this perspective as the overall meaning behind chukim, those mitzvos we do not comprehend.  If we’re willing to circumcise our babies with joy, despite the inherent challenges, we will be psychologically prepared to accept any challenge Heaven sends our way, as unfair as it may appear.  Not only do we accept it, but we welcome the heavenly decree with joy.

And on the flipside, some people may be blessed with an abundance of good fortune in their lives.  And yet happiness still eludes them.  Their glass may be the size of a barrel, but they will still perceive it as half empty.  Because all they see is a barrel that’s not quite filled to the top, instead of recognizing that most people are drinking out of plastic cups a fraction of the size.

Putting aside our earlier father of the bride who was bargaining just for fun, how could anyone think of quibbling over wedding planning details?  Sadly, as Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel points out, the most joyous occasion often turns sour for silly reasons.  Just think about what’s going on here.  Most parents would be overjoyed to see their children married.  And there are plenty of singles who would give anything to find their basherte.  And yet these lucky families who have reached this ultimate moment of joy find trivial reasons to let the happiness evaporate.

The same is true for so many of our blessings in life.  If we would just take a step back and ask ourselves if we just might be getting a little too worked up and worried about blessings that others could only dream of enjoying, our eyes would open up to the happiness staring right at us.

Happiness is not inherent.  It’s a choice you get to make with every situation you enter into in life.  May you find joy in all that Heaven sends your way!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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