Seven years ago, on Rosh Chodesh Kislev, (corresponding this year to Friday, November 13th), the Chabad world was anguished when terrorists murdered the Rebbe’s emissaries in Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivky Holtzberg, OBM, along with four guests in their Chabad House. Nothing about their killings could even possibly be construed as random; they had been clearly targeted–as Jews, as Lubavitchers, as emissaries of the Rebbe. Consummate evil had scored a stunning victory over selfless good.
The only question for me was, what was I going to to about it.
On that day, I decided it was time to finally grow up.
It really isn’t my fault I was raised with a feeling of entitlement. I didn’t choose my surroundings and you can’t blame me for not wanting to change them. As far as I could see, it was a good thing that nobody was persecuted and nobody was poor. Which meant that my young classmates and I had more time to focus on the most important thing in the world, something we just assumed we had coming to us: the right to pursue happiness. The only challenge was that we had to deduce for ourselves not only what happiness was but how to pursue it. And on this test, there was no sharing answers.
This happiness conundrum consumed me. My surroundings hinted to the answer being found in success, and success depended on four “P’s”: performance, popularity, prettiness and possessions.
I’m not minimizing the importance of any of these “P’s,” but, something inside me questioned how they could provide the answer to true happiness. These markers were too random– and what about health? (We weren’t clueless, after all, we did learn that suffering existed in the world.)
And that’s why the whole subject of happiness terrified me. (To this day, terrifying thoughts still jump into my head; by now, they serve as reminders of how much I need to work harder to bring Moshiach, who will end pain and suffering forever.)
But here was the worst part of this unwritten course: it was competitive. Happiness was apparently achieved through success in the “P’s,” and you wanted to score higher than your neighbor. This model nurtured the notion that the objective in life was to get ahead, and the best attitude to have towards others was somewhere between guarded and adversarial. Was I the only one who felt like that? Judging from how others behaved, I don’t think so. But I do think most others were just too busy to ask whether or not this course contained the key to happiness.
I know psychologists have their “survival of the fittest” explanations for competitive behavior, especially among girls. I even understand the spiritual benefit of competition, that our ego is what has driven us to “conquer the world” and thereby create a dwelling place for G-d.
But the behavior seemed almost hard-wired, which was frustrating once I became observant and wanted to relate to people differently. First I learned that true happiness comes from understanding that G-d is everything (which, of course, means everyone). And, then I learned that the best measurement of my understanding was my ahavas yisroel, my ability to love every Jew without qualification.
First of all, throughout my whole young life, there was G-d and there was me. Although I didn’t know why He did what He did (I still don’t), I just kept asking Him to keep coming through for me. Now, after all that competition, I’m supposed to truly care about what He does for others? I couldn’t imagine it; of course, I did nice things for people, because Judaism is mainly about the deed. But that feeling of separateness wouldn’t leave me. Making matters difficult were my beloved “P’s.” I was still evaluating these externalities in my new surroundings, and it didn’t seem like I was the only one who did.
But then, after many years, everything changed.
In one day.
Somehow the overarching message of the Mumbai attack was that it was finally time for me to give up my preoccupation with myself and how others saw me. In that one day, I let go of my sense of “self” and became committed to bringing about the Redemption, the time when light will finally triumph over darkness. Nothing else mattered.
I admit the time was right for me to do it. (Some would argue that middle age is even a little late to grow up, but better late than never. ) My “P” score card was likely to be as full as it was going to be. I was satisfied with it and grateful for it, but it was time to move on.
I didn’t realize how liberating it would be to stop paying attention to other people’s P’s. I was better able to see their inner beauty without that score card. And the best part about the “new me” was that, somehow, when I looked in the mirror, I looked better to me, too.
There’s a Chassidic saying that what we see in others is a reflection of ourselves. And while I have by no means mastered the ability to see only beauty in all people all the time, the Mumbai attacks shocked me into a new mode of divine service. I thought I was making these changes to do more to bring Moshiach; I had no idea how happy they would make me in the process.