Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha Lech Lecha (Genesis 12-17)

Are You Trading Your Happiness?

We don’t need modern research to tell us that money can’t buy happiness, yet when an article comes out that provides concrete data or insights into the relationship between money and happiness, it is worthwhile to pay attention. Four years ago, Arthur Brooks wrote in an article documenting that while consumption has increased significantly in the US over the last twenty years, happiness surveys show that happiness has decreased. Brooks has three messages. (1) The next time you are about to purchase something that you think will make your life better, say five times “this will not bring me happiness.” (2) Don’t expect or rely on any elected official to provide happiness for you. (3) The best way to achieve happiness is through close relationships with others. Brooks concludes with a poignant comment:

The world encourages us to love things and use people. But that’s backwards. Put this on your fridge and try to live by it: Love people; use things. 

If there is one person in this week’s parsha who could have really benefited from Brooks’ advice, it is Lot, (Abraham’s nephew). Lot starts out as an important member of Avram’s family but when they returned from Egypt, things started to go downhill for Lot. The shepherds of Lot and Avram get into a dispute. Rashi explains,

Lot’s shepherds illegally grazed their cattle in other people’s fields. Abram’s shepherds rebuked them for this act of robbery, but they replied, “The land has been given to Abram, and since he has no son as heir, Lot will be his heir: consequently, this is not robbery.” Scripture, however, states: “The Canaanite and the Perizzite abode then in the land”, so that Abram was not yet entitled to possession.

R. Avigdor Nebenzahl, current Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem’s Old City, notes (Sichos L’Sefer Bereishis no. 11) that it is difficult to explain the legal argument of Lot and his shepherds. Inheritance only takes place after someone dies. Furthermore, if the “owner” says that something doesn’t belong to him, what right does the inheritor have to take it? Rather, suggests R. Nebenzahl, when someone is only thinking about money, logic takes a backseat, which is exactly what happened when Abram suggested that he and Lot part ways. We would have expected Lot — who was a family member in the inner circle of Abram, a man of renown all over the region—to push back on the proposition and say that he will figure out a way to work things out—anything as long as he could remain with his uncle Abram and his entourage. Instead, Lot could only see the Jordan valley and opportunity to make even more money, so he departed. Lot loved things and used people, so this decision made sense to him.

We all know that buying things won’t bring us happiness. But it’s possible that Lot might have said the same thing. There is a certain allure to material wealth and consumerism that causes us to forget our core values. Lot reached a crossroad in his life where he had the opportunity to think about what was truly important to him and make an appropriate decision—even one that would be to his financial disadvantage. When we find ourselves in this situation, we need to ask ourselves, what’s more important, being proud of my decision and being a role model for others or making a profit, even if it entailed doing something illegal or immoral.

Imagine two graduate computer science students talking to each other about their work. One mentions a revolutionary robotic engine that will change the way production is done. He hasn’t had time to apply for a patent and in the meantime, his friend applies for the patent, gets it and makes a fortune. In addition to losing a friend and colleague, he has lost not only his moral compass but also his happiness compass. Granted, he will make a lot of money, but is it worth it at the cost of his friends, family, and colleagues knowing he is the kind of person who cares only about money?

We all face crossroads, times when we need to ask ourselves whether our pursuit of material goods is my goal in life; do I really believe it will give me peace of mind or is it creating a false sense of happiness. When we reach these crossroads, we should try our best to ensure that if we were guilty until now of loving things and using people, we will recommit to loving people and using things.

Good Shabbos