Yom Kippur and the Secret to a Happy Life
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Yom Kippur and the Secret to a Happy Life

Yom Kippur and the Secret to a Happy Life

The connection between envy and the holiest day of the year.


Do you want to know the secret for having a happy life?

Strangely enough, we can derive the answer from Yom Kippur, the day that seems to be dedicated to depriving ourselves of pleasure. But to really understand it we have to grasp the deeper purpose of this last of the 10 days of repentance.

It's no coincidence that the number of days set aside by Jewish tradition for introspection and self improvement correspond exactly to the number of commandments God carved on the tablets of law He gave us on Mount Sinai, the greatest summary of our prescription for righteous living.

The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur present us with an opportunity to set aside one day for each one of the categories alluded to in the Decalogue.

We begin our spiritual journey on the first two days of Rosh Hashanah by stressing our commitment to the first two commandments. We emphasize our dedication to the existence of God as well as to his oneness – “I am the Lord your God” and “you shall have no other gods before me” - as we blow the shofar and acknowledge his Divine rulership and judgment.

With every passing day we follow the progression of the 10 Commandments to ever greater levels of difficulty. The sequence of the Decalogue, the rabbinic sages explain, is rooted in the divine assumption that every step we take in a spiritual program of self perfection allows us then to move forward to even greater heights. Just as physical training proceeds by way of learning to master ever more strenuous and difficult tasks, so too does our moral code move forward with greater and more demanding challenges.

The 10th and last commandment – “Thou shalt not covet” – the one that requires of us to control not only our actions and words but even our thoughts, is clearly the most daunting and the most difficult one of all. Yet, in its concern for the elimination of envy and its attempt to convince us of the folly of spending our lives seeking to accumulate more and more of the things others possess, it is almost certainly the most relevant of the Commandments for contemporary times.

“Thou shalt not covet” corresponds with Yom Kippur, the 10th and last day of repentance. it deserves to be the focus of our attention on Yom Kippur because only by mastering its message can we hope to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness.

What is it, after all, that makes so many people feel like failures? On a superficial level the simple assumption is that we are depressed because we are deprived. The truth is that it is not so. Our obsession for acquiring wealth has far less to do with our personal wants than with our refusal to have less than others. We have to face up to the fact that, as Frank Ross put it, “It is not so much what we haven’t, but what others have that makes for unhappiness.”

A fascinating psychological study proves the point. The following question was posed to a representative sampling of people: Would you rather earn 100,000 dollars when everyone around you is making $50,000 or would you rather make $200,000 when everyone around you makes $400,000? The study made clear that the question assumed that the cost of living and goods stays the same. A rational person would choose the second option, where he makes more money but less than people around him. That way he will have twice as much to spend. In reality most people picked the first option. The most important consideration was simply being richer than other people!

That’s why there is a multibillion-dollar industry in the world today whose purpose is the systematic propagation of envy, the acceptance of the new tenth commandment, which now reads, “You shall covet.” The name of the industry is advertising. Its goal, as frankly admitted by advertising guru B. Earl Puckett, is this: “It is our job to make men and women unhappy with what they have.”

Every few months, fashions change. What is “in” one month is “out” the next. One week you’re an outcast if you’re not wearing a certain kind of sneakers. The next week, you’re out of date and a geek if you haven’t switched to another brand. Why must you constantly have something else? Because big business needs consumers. So consumers have to be taught what they need rather than to have their real needs met.

There’s no big secret which emotion Madison Avenue wants to appeal to most. Gucci was brave enough to admit it when it called a new perfume it was trying to popularize, “Envy.” Remarkable, isn’t it, that what the Torah has identified as the basic cause of human suffering – the sin of envy – has become the very feeling the age of advertising wants us to strongly embrace.

How many times a day are we told not to be happy with what we have because others have more? Thomas Clapp Patton, in his book Envy Politics, gives us the staggering figure that Americans are exposed to about 3,000 ads a day. Big-city newspapers consist of 70 to 90 percent ads rather than news. The subliminal message is always the same: Whether you really need it or not, don’t be without what other people have.

If the desire for something is based on need, then fulfillment brings contentment. If the goal, however, is to overcome the need to covet the acquisitions of others, then we are doomed to disappointment and to ever-greater dissatisfaction. There’s always somebody who has a little bit more – enough at least to stir up within us sufficient envy to prevent us from being content with what is ours.

A study published this past June in Psychological Science confirmed what we should have intuitively recognized. “The things we are trained to think make us happy, like having a new car every couple of years and buying the latest fashions, don't make us happy. Buying luxury goods, conversely, tends to be an endless cycle of one-upsmanship, in which the neighbors have a fancy new car and – bingo!– now you want one, too.”

So what really gives us true happiness? Faith in a higher power is high up on the list. Optimism based on belief in God is worth more than $1 million in the bank. A feeling of self-worth rooted in a commitment to a life lived with values provides far more satisfaction than unlimited amounts of stuff and more stuff to fill our closets.

The bottom line? The spiritual rewards reaped from a religious perspective far outweigh the benefits seductively paraded before us in the advertisements that daily bombard us with their false and alluring promises.

That is why we so desperately need Yom Kippur to help us rearrange our priorities. It is a day when we demonstrate that we can master our physical needs. We choose prayer over food. We choose communion with God over making more money. We do not wear our jewelry and our adornments so that no one need envy the possessions of others. We concentrate not on the things we covet that don't belong to us but on the blessings God has already granted to us that could give us so much joy if we only fully appreciated them.

And that's why, ironically enough, the day of Yom Kippur, with all of its deprivations, helps to teach us the real meaning of happiness and contentment.

Published: September 27, 2014

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Visitor Comments: 12

(10) Anonymous, October 1, 2014 2:09 PM


It is a vicious cycle. We need advertising to move the economy, because if there was no advertising, people would not know what is available, consumer non-shopping would v affect the economy, which no matter how much we have would put us in a low quality of life. However; what Rabbi Blech says is so true, but I take it another step. It is not the advertising on T.V. or newspapers per se, it is what our contemporaries around us have. Especially in an orthodox community, the haves set the tone. If every well to do child in the neighborhood has the top video game, or someone has the latest refrigerator, with all the modes, and all the conveniences, upon seeing this, the have nots, or those with older models feel that twinge in their hearts. Why not me? I often think about the few Bloomberg's in the world. I know he earned every penny he made, he is a hard worker, but he is worth 20 billion dollars, a number to high to contemplate. He certainly will never spend it all in his lifetime, no matter how philanthropic he is. But when he was Mayor of NYC , he demonstrated in so many ways how he got to where he is. His excellent work ethic, expecting top performances from workers, his not having an agenda, just wanting the best for the city. Yes, there are people who don't like him, but he did not engender in me any envy whatsoever. Hashem has his reasons why he rewards some people with such wealth,and why others are relegated to less. Hashem also gave us the challenge of either calming that envy, or letting it eat us up. The thing I always say, as we saw with the death of Joan Rivers,is you take absolutely nothing with you, and leave this world exactly the same way you came into it: only when leaving you take your reputation, if it is a sterling one, no one can take it away.

(9) Anonymous, September 30, 2014 4:16 PM

Envy isn't Jealousy

Envy is the legitimate recognition that someone has a quality, or does deed that's are you wish you could do. Say givi8ng more tzedakah for a cause that is meaningful. Performing more mitzvot, It can serve as a goal. I can be just living in a home large enough and functional enough to serve the needs of your family.
It is jealousy, begrudging another of something he has or does that is poisonous. Let's make that distinction. It's important.
You may envy that in some way, another leads a more meaningful life, utilizes his talents in a better way, is perhaps a better spouse or parent or human being. No problem with that.
It's when you're jealous of that person, you yourself have a big problem.

(8) AVRAM, September 30, 2014 3:35 PM

what comes to it

you know at the end of the day it comes to this what have I done to make a better environment jew or not jew we are in this earth together struggling for a better life for us and our future kids.......if all of us would follow some sort of moral principle we will strive in harmony and rip our benefits
shalom shabbath
avram in new jersey

(7) Rick, September 30, 2014 3:07 PM

Optimism on belief in God is worth more than $1 million in the bank. ???

Maybe, Yes of course in abstract. But what is you are facing total secular disaster. You are being evicted from your home, you have no money, you work hard every day but cannot get to a point where your income can get you at least stable. Yes, you may have, should have, complete faith in Hashem...but that does not mean you situation here in this life will be fixed. The value of your faith may only be for the next life, your neshema. So here I am facing these things today...homelessness, poverty, disappointing my family and all I have is my emuah, my faith in Hashem...so what is next? What I see for this life is falling off a cliff...no where to turn except to Hashem... and no one really give a darn, but that is OK for I am responsible for all of my problems, no one else. I guess this is the end. But there is part of me, if I am honest with myself, that wishes I had the million dollars to stay alive. All up to God.

eugene mazzilli, September 30, 2014 9:16 PM

I was there too.

It is not the end. It is just the beginning. God has made you fall lower than dirt, for what ever reason, which is not revealed to us at this time. It is your comeuppance and God has put you in this place for you to hear what He has to reveal to you. So far you have seen His earthly moves. Now, there is only one way for you to go and that is to rise up. So now it is time for you to sit quietly in your room and hear what God has to tell you. I was in the same situation as you, no friends too (as you say, no one gives a damn), family disappointed, no job, house mortgage one month away from default, wife and children scared, and here am I feeling sorry for myself. So I asked the Lord what He wanted from me and I prayed over it. He then placed all of the people in front of me (unbeknownst to me that He was doing this) for me to do His will. First came the beggar. I had NO money to give, but I looked in my wallet and I had a five dollar bill. The Lord wispered to me, "he has nothing. no place to rest his head, no one to help him, dirty, no food. What will you do for him". So I gave him the five dollars. Then came the mother who lost her only son to kidney failure. I was at least able to console her at the funeral and explain that the Lord has a better place for him, especially since he suffered so much on this earth. Imagine me explaining this to someone when I was so unbelieving. Then God put the Senator in front of me who asked what I did for a living. The rest is miraculous. I found a great job, and was able to catch up on some of my bills. So everyone is happy. Looking back, I realized that the only thing I did differently was to Pray to the Lord, and to do His will. But most importantly, to come closer to Him. You must do the same. The value of your faith is measured both here and in the next life. All things work for good for those who love the Lord. Your love of the Lord will reveal itself in ways you cannot imagine.

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