Jonathan Muskat
Jonathan Muskat

Living a Life of Service: The Key to Happiness

I have spent the last few weeks engaged in much reflection.  My father just passed away two weeks ago, and as I told many people who paid a shiva call, I felt that the shiva process was an opportunity to study the “sugya” (topic) of my father “b’iyun” (in depth).  The shiva process reminded me of the line in Masechet Chagiga 3a, when Rabbi Yehoshua told Rav YochananBen Broka and Rabbi Eliezer ben Chisma that it is not possible for there to be a Beit Midrash study session without a new insight.  Even if you learn the same piece of Torah again and again, every new time you learn it you can discover a new insight.  Similarly, I felt that I told the Torah of my father, the same stories, again and again and again during shiva, but every so often as I retold a story, I gained a new insight into my father, or I saw a particular character trait of my father in one of my children.  I found the shiva process very tiring, but also very insightful and meaningful.

I also reflected upon the heroic acts of chesed that my elder brother and sister-in-law in Chicago performed in caring for my father since he moved to Chicago and fell ill about four years ago.  They wheeled my father when he was able every Friday night and Shabbat morning from the nearby nursing home to their house to spend Shabbat with them, and taking care of my father during these last four years and making sure that he was getting the best medical care while preserving his dignity under dire circumstances was very challenging, to say the least.

At my father’s funeral, I remarked that my brother and sister-in-law will be rewarded simply because their children have seen how they modeled kibbud as va’em under difficult circumstances, and the children have been inspired and educated in this regard better than any school lesson that they could have received about this very important mitzvah.

But I think that there is another benefit to living a life of service like that which my brother and sister-in-law have led in the past few years for the benefit of my father.  In last week’s Torah portion, the Torah states that when we bring the first fruits to Jerusalem and we make a declaration thanking God for taking us out of Egypt and bringing us to Eretz Yisrael, the Torah states, “v’samachta b’chol hatov asher natan lecha Hashem Elokecha u’l’veitecha atah v’haLevi v’hager asher b’kirbecha“ or “and you will be happy with all the good that God has given you and your household, you and the Levi and the stranger who are in your midst.”  The LikuteiYehoshua points out that the Torah states that we will be happy specifically if we are together with the Levi and the stranger.  The reason for this is that in Biblical times these individuals typically were amongst the poorest in society, and when we are with them, we realize how much we have compared to them.  This realization will generate feelings of gratitude and ultimately happiness.  Therefore, when we live a life of service, quietly caring for the needs of those less fortunate, our empathy for the other naturally leads to feelings of gratitude and ultimately happiness.

And I was thinking about how we live in a social media-focused world where we are trying to market ourselves and our brand and our product, very often for legitimate reasons, and the goal is to be noticed.  One of the primary challenges with this world is that once the goal is to be noticed, we tend to compare ourselves to the lives of others, or at least how their lives are presented on social media, which may or may not reflect reality, and this world often engenders a lot of jealousy when we compare our own lives to the lives of others that we see in this world.

Then there are my brother and sister-in-law, and so many of us out there, whose lives are not consumed by social media but are focused on a life of service to help those less fortunate, and I think about my father who also lived a rather quiet life without much fanfare, but it was a simple life of being “samei’ach b’chelko,” of being content.  And then I think about so many of us who are running around to be noticed and I wonder who is happier.

We find ourselves in the season of repentance which is a season of reflection.  As we reflect upon our past and plan towards our future, let’s consider spending more of our time next year engaged in chesed, in acts of service.  In the social media world in which we find ourselves, it will do wonders for our feelings of gratitude and ultimately our happiness.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.