Paying attention: Learning to appreciate the gifts you have been given

Dr. Lawrence Layfer

By Lawrence F. Layfer, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Acharei Mot – K’doshim (Leviticus 16:1-20:27)

“When you enter the land and plant a tree for food…its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation, a time of joy before the Lord”…Leviticus 19:23-24

This week we are in the midst of the period the counting of the Omer, the time between the second day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot. It is customary during these days to study the lessons of the Talmud tractate Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers. In next week’s chapter Ben Zoma will ask (4:1): “who is rich,” and answer “he who is happy in his portion.” To this question Rabbi Marc Angel comments: “a great artist once said that when I wish to see clearly I close my eyes…with eyes open one sees surface reality, but with eyes shut one contemplates the context and meaning of things. Ben Zoma teaches… with our eyes open a rich person is one with many possessions, but with eyes closed we understand that real wealth is embodied in an attitude of satisfaction and gratitude for what one has.”

The Talmud (tractate Shabbos 25B) sees the perception of wealth in one’s portion as being dependent on the circumstance of the individual: “he who has pleasure in his wealth, this is Rabbi Meir’s view; for Rabbi Tarfon, he who possesses a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields and a hundred laborers working in them; For Rabbi Akiva, a wife who is comely in deeds; for Rabbi Yose, a privy near his table.” How to explain the differences? Rabbi Meir was a scribe, poor all his life, so for him riches meant enough money to afford his basic needs; Rabbi Tarfon, already wealthy, looked for stability of income-generating enterprises; Rabbi Akiva married into wealth, so money was secondary to a wife who brought a compliment to his own sense of spirituality; and for Rabbi Yose, who suffered from gastrointestinal disorders, wealth was nearness to his privy. In Sefer Ma’alot Hamidot it is said: “despise not riches, honor the wealthy if they are benevolent and modest, but remember that the true riches are contentment.” But Ben Franklin concluded “who is rich: he that is content; and who is that: nobody.”

Author Kurt Vonnegut’s uncle Alex taught him that the key to contentment was “when things are really going well we should be sure to notice it.”  Speaking to the Butler University graduating class, he related: “Uncle Alex was talking about very simple occasions…maybe drinking lemonade under a shade tree, or smelling the aroma of a bakery, or fishing, or listening to music coming from a concert hall while standing in the dark outside, or, dare I say, after a kiss. He told me that it was important at such times to say out loud ‘if this isn’t nice, what is?’ Uncle Alex…thought it was a terrible waste to be happy and not notice it. So do I…as I read the book of Genesis, G-d didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet. He gave them a manageable piece of property, for the sake of discussion let’s say 200 acres. I suggest to you Adams and Eves that you set as your goal the setting of some small part of the planet into something like safe and sane and decent order. There’s a lot of cleaning up to do. There’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical. And, again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice.”

Margaret Dyer, an artist, describes her gratitude in the intro to a collection of her pastel paintings: “I may not be able to balance my check book; I may not have a sense of direction; I may have no fashion sense; I may not have a green thumb although G-d knows I’ve tried; I may be a lousy housekeeper and I may burn more food more often than I should; I may think of the cleverest answer two days later; and I may be absolutely pathetic in a political conversation. I may be more deficient in more things than most people are. But I can draw. And that makes everything OK.” 

Lou Weiss, a carpet salesman, wrote in an article: “I hereby declare myself the World’s Most Privileged Person…what makes me so privileged…I live in a country where my G-d-given freedom was articulated by the Founders and is maintained by the selflessness of U.S. soldiers. And I was privileged to be schooled in the merits of self-deprecating humor and seeing the absurdity in much of life by Mad magazine, Dick Van Dyke, Tom Lehrer, Woody Allen, John Belushi and the Brooks Brothers: Albert and Mel. Now come my own choices that make me so privileged. I have always been a pretty hard worker, have few vices and am fairly frugal. This allowed me to pay for the schooling of four daughters and make substantial charitable contributions…my all-time best decision was marrying a woman with a beautiful face and a pitch-perfect personality. Privileged to spend every day with her? You bet. I have been blessed that my two main religions have had some of their best years ever during my lifetime: Israel, re-established after 2,000 years of Jewish exile, has flourished, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, after 40 years in the NFL wilderness, won six Super Bowls in the past…the privilege of friendship is also mine. Some friends I’ve known since grade school; all of them stick with me even if they are sick of my politics and puns…so here’s my formula for becoming the World’s Most Privileged Person: Get a job in high school, find friends of substance rather than substances, work with people you like, marry happily, dress British and think Yiddish. If you can top that, I would happily surrender the title. It would be a privilege.”

This week’s Torah portion suggests one other way to savor joy in the portion you are given: the ripening of the first fruits of the spring, a portion of which were to be brought up to Jerusalem in joy and celebration, joined by other Israelites in a march to Jerusalem where the bounty would be and shared amongst friends and family, Temple workers and the poor. So each season, in recognition of our gratitude, and in order to demonstrate thanksgiving, the Torah makes clear to share some of your bounty. Maimonides explains how we can increase our own joy at the holiday time: “For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphan, the widow and the convert. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Divine Presence, which Isaiah (57:15) describes as the tendency ‘to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive those with broken hearts,’” both for the recipient and the giver.  

Dr. Lawrence Layfer is Emeritus Professor at Rush Medical College and former Chair of Medicine at NorthShore-Skokie.

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