Book Review: Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance by Haim Shapira, PhD

The Book

This book has quickly become one of my favorite books. In it, the author, Haim Shapira, renowned philosopher and game theorist, challenges a number of concepts that we generally take for granted and gives us a whole new perspective on them, while providing us with a fresh canvas to reconstruct our take on it.  Shapira, explains that life can take us on one of two divergent paths, the natural path and what he calls the path of grace. The natural path may be easier but is far less fulfilling. In this book he gives us some tips to revisualize what we may take for granted when on the natural path of life. 

The author quotes liberally yet within context from a range of humans spanning from Shakespeare to Spinoza and King Solomon to Julia Roberts as well as non-humans including Pooh and The Little Prince 

Takeaways

Some of the key takeaways I learned from the book include:

  • On Happiness: Happiness does not sustain itself indefinitely, there is no such thing as someone who is always in a state of happiness, unless they are crazy. Happiness can be a moment, a day, a week or even just a memory.

  • There are countless guides printed promoting a solution to achieve happiness. Shapira explains that the secret is that there isn’t  one way that will make everyone happy, everyone has their own unique thing that makes them happy. Moreover, many people in fact do not even know what makes them happy.

  • On doing nothing: Have you ever tried doing nothing? Thinking  about nothing? Have you tried doing nothing and not feeling guilty about it? You are not alone, but this may be the key to happiness. Shapira explains that Pooh was most happy and all he did was essentially nothing. The idea is not to do absolutely nothing, but to balance your busy life, with moments of self, just for you.  – I think if practiced correctly this can be incredibly powerful.

  • Anger: Quoting from Spinoza, Shapira explains that if you would get angry at someone and then forgive them 30 minutes later or 30 years later, it was wasted anger and you should’ve just forgiven to begin with. Anger is punishing yourself for the stupidity of others, just forgive them. 
  • Love: Love cannot have strings attached. It cannot be based on “because of” and “thanks to” but must include “in despite of” as well. 

Quotes I Appreciated

  • “If we had no faults of our own, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld
  • “When we talk to God, we’re praying. When God talks to us, we’re schizophrenic”
    Jane Wagner 
  • “Pessimism is usually an expression of intellectual laziness” – Colin Wilson


Overall Thoughts

As a final note, I feel this book would have been great just as a chapter on happiness. I felt strongly like the subsequent chapters, became a commentary of sorts on The Little Prince. Regardless, the lessons learned in this book, if taken seriously, will help you turn the page to look at life and our world completely differently.

Happiness and Other Small Things of Absolute Importance can be purchased at Amazon.com

The Chachma of Havdala

Berachos 33

הַבְדָּלָה בְּ״חוֹנֵן הַדָּעַת״: מַאי טַעְמָא

We learned in the mishna that havdala, distinguishing between Shabbat and the weekdays, is added in the blessing of: Who graciously grants knowledge. Here too the Gemara asks: What is the reason that havdala is recited specifically in that blessing?

אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף: מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁהִיא חָכְמָה, קְבָעוּהָ בְּבִרְכַּת חָכְמָה. 

Rav Yosef said: Havdala is recited in that blessing because it requires wisdom to distinguish between two entities, they established it in the blessing of wisdom. 

The Gemara teaches us that on Motzei Shabbos we say the Tefila of Ata Chonentanu in the bracha of Chonen Ha’Daas. Ata Chonentenu is referred to as Havdala, as it is with this Tefilla that we declare a separation between Shabbos and weekdays. The Gemara goes on to explain the reason we say Havdala in this Bracha is because Havdala is Chochma and therefore Chazal put it in the bracha for Chochma. Rashi explains that a Chacham knows to discern between that which is ritually pure and that which is impure or between that which is holy and that which is mundane. The Ran (Teshuvot HaGeonim 92)  tells us that in fact, Chachma is by definition the ability to discern between two very similar, yet different things. 

We find similarly the Yerushalmi (Berachos 5;2)  teaches us that if not for Daas, one would not know how to be mavdil, or separate. The Mei HaShiloach (Vol 2 Miketz 4)  expounds on this and explains that when one has Yishuv HaDaas, a calm state of mind, one can then discern two seemingly similar things from each other and thereby have the ability to take ideas from other cultures or communities by separating out the good part of it and integrating it into one’s life and leaving the bad behind. 

Rav Tzadok (Bo), however, has a different take on this and explains that as Shabbos ends, one feels a spiritual decline as the high of Shabbos fades away. Therefore, one should be mispallel in the Bracha of Daas that the upcoming week should be one which is clean of sin and full of Yirah, like it was on Shabbos. He continues, that we see from the brachos of the Shemoneh Esrei, where we first talk about how Hashem is the source of all. Once we recognize that everything is from Hashem, the ultimate Mavdil, we can then move onto the Bracha of Daas or Chochma and develop a sense of Yiras Hashem, as the pasuk says Reishis Chachma Yiras Hashem. From there we can go on to do Teshuva and experience the Geula Sheleima. 

Do A Mitzvah The Right Way

Shabbos 2

The Mishna teaches us the laws of carrying from one domain to another, the example of the mishna for this is a poor person reaching into someones house to ask for food or a wealthy person reaching out of his house to give food to a poor person.

The Meiri asks, why doesn’t the Mishna give a classic example of 2 people, why are we seemingly discussing the laws of charity in the middle of the laws of Shabbos?

He explains that the Mishna is teaching us that even if something is a Mitzvah, we cannot do an Aveirah to get that Mitzvah done.

Endangering other people is an Averia, we should not endanger others by violating quarantine or the like in order to fulfill the Mitzvos of Purim.

Wishing you all a healthy and fulfilling Purim!

Thank You For Your Courage

Flipping through a publication recently, I noticed an interesting pattern. There were quite a few letters to the editor, many of them with strong takeaways. However, the majority were signed anonymously. This bothered me, as it felt like the anonymity of the authors took away the entire message. If you cannot sign your name to something, how can you expect others to listen? 

Thinking about this over the past few days, I have come to realize that we live in an age of anonymity. We have become protective of ourselves and our families to such an extent, that we are afraid to be associated with our very own actions. We, therefore, have an abundance of anonymity in our midst, ranging from letters to the editor to mega donations. Many Instagram, Twitter, and other social media users hide behind a name, not their own. It seems to have become an incurable plague. 

Why Do We Act Anonymously & What Does This Have To Do With Your Courage?

Anonymity helps to protect from stigma or other self-doubts that one has, and it is also used to do things selflessly. However, it is used too much; in fact, it appears to have become a selfish act. Why does our generation feel like we cannot show who we really are? It is as if there is the external person and the internal person, and they calibrate via the anonymous factor. 

Much has been written on the cowardice hiding behind anonymity, and how it rears its ugly head all over the internet. I would like to focus on the lack of self courage hiding behind anonymity. 

People write books, articles, letters and tweets anonymously, for many reasons, the crux of which is to protect themselves or their careers from any collateral damage. What they do not realize is that ideas, when communicated anonymously, lose their force in the battle of ideas. Pseudonyms normalize the idea that people should be frightened to express unpopular views. Consequently, they indirectly serve to delegitimize the views being expressed.

Courage = 100% Accountability

A mentor taught me that when one acts with courage and knows their view is correct, it no longer makes any difference what others think. If I can express my opinion without hiding behind a mask, I am thereby empowered to follow through on my expression and not let the detractors get me down. As a caveat, courage is the ability to take 100% ownership of your actions, which includes the courage to admit when it’s a mistake.

“ The courageous can be anonymous, like fallen heroes with stars on a wall, but the anonymous are not necessarily courageous.”

Danny Pharr

Imagine everyone being true to who they are. When people express their views courageously, conversations take place, policies change, the world becomes a better place. When we hide behind a pseudonym we are enabling a status-quo that people should be afraid to express their opinion, however unpopular it may seem. As a result, it causes the opinion expressed to be rendered completely illegitimate. 

I look forward to recognizing my peers through their courageously expressed views and seeing the conversations that take place as a result of this courage. 

Are you ready?

Thank you for your courage!

Shui Haber

The Heavenly Gates

Berachos Daf 32

ואמר רבי אלעזר: מיום שחרב בית המקדש ננעלו שערי תפלה, שנאמר: ״גם כי אזעק ואשוע שתם תפלתי״. ואף על פי ששערי תפילה ננעלו, שערי דמעה לא ננעלו, שנאמר: ״שמעה תפלתי ה׳ ושועתי האזינה אל דמעתי אל תחרש״.

On the subject of prayer, Rabbi Elazar also said: Since the day the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer were locked and prayer is not accepted as it once was, as it is said in lamentation of the Temple’s destruction: “Though I plead and call out, He shuts out my prayer” (Lamentations 3:8). Yet, despite the fact that the gates of prayer were locked with the destruction of the Temple, the gates of tears were not locked, and one who cries before God may rest assured that his prayers will be answered, as it is stated: “Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my pleading, keep not silence at my tears” (Psalms 39:13). Since this prayer is a request that God should pay heed to the tears of one who is praying, he is certain that at least the gates of tears are not locked.

What are these Gates of Tefillah and Tears? For that matter, why do we even bother praying, if the gate is locked?

Furthermore, we know that Tefillah took the place of the Korbanos. If the Korbanos ceased with the Churban and along with that, the Gates of Tefillah were locked, what is the point of the Tefillos?

Rabbeinu Bachye (Bereshis 1;18)  explains that the Tefillah is indeed in place of a Korban, however, accompanying the Korban there was always the Nisuch HaMayim, pouring of water on Mizbeach. He explains that when we are mispallel with tears, we are representing the Nisuch Hamayim. This represents the Sefira of Chesed and the Yemin, which is where the Shaarei Teshuva are. 

Rabbeinu Bachye explains further (Shemos 22,20) that for this reason one should be careful with a Ger, Yosom or Almana  as they tend to cry more, and therefore their Tefillos are heard first. 

We also see that the Shaarei Dimah and Shaarei Teshuva are perhaps the same. The Midrash in Devarim Rabba 2  tells us that while the Shaarei Tefillah are sometimes open and sometimes closed, the Shaar Teshuva is never locked, as whomever wants to do Teshuva is welcomed in. 

The Arizal teaches us (Shar Mamarei Rashbi) that the Shaarei Tefillah are in the Sefira of Binah. This was the level Moshe Rabbeinu was on when he was davening after the Cheit HaEgel. There is a lower rung where Tefillah is accepted and that is through the Sefira of Chesed, in the Shaarei Teshuva and Dimah. 

What are these Sefiros and why are some Tefillos going through the higher sphere of Binah, while others are going via Chesed?

Furthermore, we saw in the Midrash that the Shaar Tefillah is not always locked, when is it open?

The Shaarei Orah (Shaar 2 – Sefira 9) tells us that the Shaar Tefillah is always open for the Tefillos of a Tzibbur. However, for the Tefillah of a Yachid, it is not so clear cut. He goes on to give us a very vivid explanation as to the back end of a Tefillah:

There is a Tefillah quality assurance system manned by Angels, wherein every Tefillah that an individual says goes into a special Heichal and and is reviewed.  If the Tefillah is found to be befitting, it is brought up to Hashem. If it is not a proper Tefillah, it is called a Tefillah Pesula and the Tefillah and all its contents are called Pesilim. These are pushed out of the Heichal and the doors shut behind it. The Shaarei Orah explains that based on this, we find most of our Tefillos are Pesilim and as we brought up earlier, it seems they are going to waste.  He explains that all these Tefillos that were pushed away Hashem gathers them to a special place where they are kept for safekeeping. When one is Mispallel properly with the right Kavana, the Kosher Tefillah then goes up to this special place and brings along with it all the Pesilim, straight up to Hashem. 

If one does not do Teshuva and does not daven with proper Kavana, these tefilos are pushed further out and the doors to the Shaarei Teshuva are shut. 

However, there is still another door, the Shaarei Dimah. These are opened 3 times a day by Hashem Himself and when a person does Teshuva and is Mispallel with tears, his Tefillah and tears will go straight to Hashem. 

We see that the Shaarei Teshuva and Shaarei Dimah are not necessarily the same thing. The Shaarei Teshuva can close too, but the Shaarei Dimah will never close. 

Reb Tzadok takes this a step further and explains that if one is mispallel a heartfelt Tefillah, not only does it go straight to the Kisei HaKavod, but any similar Tefillah that was said by his ancestors, without proper kavana, latches on to his Tefillah to go to Hashem. The Radomsker (Tiferes Shlomo, Vayera) says similarly, that with the correct Kavana you are elevating the unfit Tefillos of your previous gilgulim. 

May we all merit to have our Tefillos brought before Hashem and answered for our best. 

Focused Laughter

Berachos 31

מר בריה דרבינא עבד הילולא לבריה, חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קבדחי טובא. אייתי כסא דמוקרא בת ארבע מאה זוזי, ותבר קמיהו, ואעציבו. רב אשי עבד הילולא לבריה, חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קא בדחי טובא. אייתי כסא דזוגיתא חיורתא, ותבר קמיהו, ואעציבו.

The Gemara relates: Mar, son of Ravina, made a wedding feast for his son and he saw the Sages, who were excessively joyous. He brought a valuable cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them and they became sad. The Gemara also relates: Rav Ashi made a wedding feast for his son and he saw the Sages, who were excessively joyous. He brought a cup of extremely valuable white glass and broke it before them, and they became sad.

A bit further the Gemara tells us: 

תנו רבנן: אין עומדין להתפלל לא מתוך עצבות, ולא מתוך עצלות, ולא מתוך שחוק, ולא מתוך שיחה, ולא מתוך קלות ראש, ולא מתוך דברים בטלים, אלא מתוך שמחה של מצוה.

On the topic of proper preparation for prayer, the Sages taught: One may neither stand to pray from an atmosphere of sorrow nor from an atmosphere of laziness, nor from an atmosphere of laughter, nor from an atmosphere of conversation, nor from an atmosphere of frivolity, nor from an atmosphere of purposeless matters. Rather, one should approach prayer from an atmosphere imbued with the joy of a mitzva.

We see from these statements that at times one should avoid excessive happiness, yet one should daven from a place of happiness and joy.

The Chumash in Devarim tells us that we would get Klalos because we did not serve Hashem with Simcha. 

תחת אשר לא־עבדת את־יהוה אלהיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל

Because you would not serve the LORD your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.

The Gemara in Shabbos 30b tells us:


אין שכינה שורה לא מתוך עצבות ולא מתוך עצלות ולא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך קלות ראש ולא מתוך שיחה ולא מתוך דברים בטלים אלא מתוך דבר שמחה של מצוה

The Divine Presence rests upon an individual neither from an atmosphere of sadness, nor from an atmosphere of laziness, nor from an atmosphere of laughter, nor from an atmosphere of frivolity, nor from an atmosphere of idle conversation, nor from an atmosphere of idle chatter, but rather from an atmosphere imbued with the joy of a mitzvah.

We see that there is prime importance in Simcha and acting in ways of Simcha. 

Why where they breaking glasses at weddings? Why did the Tannaim want to limit the Simcha at their own weddings? When are we meant to be happy and when are we meant to be sad?

We find in Melachim that the Jewish people had a well-deserved Simcha during the time of Dovid Hamelech.


ביום השמיני שלח את־העם ויברכו את־המלך וילכו לאהליהם שמחים וטובי לב על כל־הטובה אשר עשה יהוה לדוד עבדו ולישראל עמו

On the eighth day he let the people go. They bade the king good-bye and went to their homes, joyful and glad of heart over all the goodness that the LORD had shown to His servant David and His people Israel. – Rashi tells us that a Bas Kol came out and said everyone is gonna go to Olam Haba. 

They had a very good reason to be happy. 

However  one can be happy for not such lofty and spiritual reasons, as Rambam writes: Shevisas Yom Tov 6

כשאדם אוכל ושותה ושמח ברגל לא ימשך ביין ובשחוק וקלות ראש ויאמר שכל מי שיוסיף בזה ירבה במצות שמחה. שהשכרות והשחוק הרבה וקלות הראש אינה שמחה אלא הוללות וסכלות ולא נצטוינו על ההוללות והסכלות אלא על השמחה שיש בה עבודת יוצר הכל שנאמר (דברים כח מז) “תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה’ אלהיך בשמחה ובטוב לבב מרב כל”. הא למדת שהעבודה בשמחה. ואי אפשר לעבד את השם לא מתוך שחוק ולא מתוך קלות ראש ולא מתוך שכרות:

When one eats and drinks on a festival, he should not be drawn after wine,joking or light-headedness, and say that the more one can increase this, the more it enhances the commandment of joy. For drunkenness, much joking and ligh-headedness are not joy, but rather wildness and foolishness. And we were not commanded about wildness and foolishness, but rather about joy that has service to the Maker of everything. As it is stated (Deuteronomy 28:47), “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and with a good heart, from abundance of all.” Thus you have learned that the service is to be with joy. But it is impossible to serve God, neither from joking,  lightheadedness nor drunkenness.

We see a clear discernment between the two types of Simcha. A simcha of Avodas Hashem and a Simcha of Holelus, frivolity. When one is happy from serving Hashem with joy, it is encouraged. The moment, the Simcha becomes excessive and is no longer L’sheim Shamayim, we are afraid it would lead to frivolousness and inappropriate behavior. At this point, the Chachamim felt they had to do something radical  to get everyone to their senses. The Gemara does not mean that they became sad, but rather they toned down their happiness from an over-elation towards a proper balance of Ruchnius and Gashmius.

The Gemara teaches us that there will come a day when we will be able to have unlimited Simcha.

אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחאי: אסור לאדם שימלא שחוק פיו בעולם הזה, שנאמר: ״אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשוננו רנה״. אימתי, בזמן ש״יאמרו בגוים הגדיל ה׳ לעשות עם אלה״. אמרו עליו על ריש לקיש שמימיו לא מלא שחוק פיו בעולם הזה, מכי שמעה מרבי יוחנן רביה.

May we merit that day very soon. 

Focused Prayer

Berachos Daf 30

תנו רבנן: סומא ומי שאינו יכול לכוין את הרוחות — יכוין לבו כנגד אביו שבשמים, שנאמר: ״והתפללו אל ה׳״. היה עומד בחוץ לארץ — יכוין את לבו כנגד ארץ ישראל, שנאמר: ״והתפללו אליך דרך ארצם״. היה עומד בארץ ישראל — יכוין את לבו כנגד ירושלים, שנאמר: ״והתפללו אל ה׳ דרך העיר אשר בחרת״. היה עומד בירושלים — יכוין את לבו כנגד בית המקדש, שנאמר: ״והתפללו אל הבית הזה״. היה עומד בבית המקדש — יכוין את לבו כנגד בית קדשי הקדשים, שנאמר: ״והתפללו אל המקום הזה״. היה עומד בבית קדשי הקדשים — יכוין את לבו כנגד בית הכפורת. היה עומד אחורי בית הכפורת — יראה עצמו כאילו לפני הכפורת. נמצא עומד במזרח מחזיר פניו למערב. במערב מחזיר פניו למזרח. בדרום — מחזיר פניו לצפון. בצפון — מחזיר פניו לדרום. נמצאו כל ישראל מכוונין את לבם למקום אחד.

The Sages taught in a Tosefta: A blind person and one who is unable to approximate the directions and, therefore, is unable to face Jerusalem in order to pray, may focus his heart towards his Father in Heaven, as it is stated: “And they shall pray to the Lord” (I Kings 8:44).

One who was standing in prayer in the Diaspora, should focus his heart toward Eretz Yisrael, as it is stated: “And they shall pray to You by way of their land which You have given to their fathers” (I Kings 8:48).

One who was standing in Eretz Yisrael, should focus his heart toward Jerusalem, as stated: “And they shall pray to the Lord by way of the city that You have chosen” (I Kings 8:44).

One who was standing in Jerusalem, should focus his heart toward the Temple, as it is stated: “And they shall pray toward this house” (II Chronicles 6:32).

One who was standing in the Temple, should focus his heart toward the Holy of Holies, as it is stated: “And they shall pray toward this place” (I Kings 8:35).

One who was standing in the Holy of Holies, should focus his heart toward the seat of the ark-cover [kapporet], atop the ark, the dwelling place of God’s glory.

One who was standing behind the seat of the ark-cover, should visualize himself as if standing before the ark-cover and turn toward it.

Consequently, one standing in prayer in the East turns to face west, and one standing in the West, turns to face east. One standing in the South, turns to face north, and one standing in the North, turns to face south; all of the people of Israel find themselves focusing their hearts toward one place, the Holy of Holies in the Temple.

We see there is an idea that everyone should be mispallel in the direction of the Kodesh Kedoshim. Why is it not enough just to have Kavana that we are davening to Hashem? Why do we need to physically face the direction of the Kodesh Kedoshim?

Rav Steinman Zt’l explained that one who lives in a world of gashmius, may have a hard time connecting to Hashem and the spiritual world. Therefore, he should be mispallel in a Shul, as a spiritual bubble and pray towards the ultimate center of spirituality, the Beis HaMikdash. This way he can focus and connect with Hashem during his Tefilla. We also find Chazal teach us that all the Tefillos from the whole world go up to Hashem via the Kodesh Kedoshim, therefore it is befitting that we should pray in its direction. Based on this, we can understand that when one is mispallel in the direction of the Kodesh Kedoshim, he is more focused as to Whom he is being mispallel, and will then have more Kavana.

Therefore, even if one is on a plane and does not know which direction is correct, if you have in mind that you are davening towards the Koshesh Kedoshim, it helps you focus and have proper Kavana.