The Jewish recipe for satisfaction
Lech Lecha | Genesis 12:1-17:27
Way back in 1955, for just $2.97, you could purchase Careers, a game like Monopoly, but instead of buying up real estate, players designed a personalized formula for career satisfaction, and moved around the board collecting points toward achieving it. Their formula could be any combination they wished of “money, fame, and happiness.”
Not surprisingly, Judaism has its own triads to conjure with: “The world stands on Torah, worship, and good deeds”; or (alternatively) “on truth, justice, and peace” (Avot 1:2, 1:18). These, however, dictate what we contribute to the world, not what we receive back from it. Does Judaism provide a recipe for personal satisfaction, the way Careers does?
The chasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev provides exactly that, by applying Kabbalah to this week’s reading, where Abraham, the first of our three patriarchs, is charged, “Lech lecha” (“go out”) into the world to work. He identifies Abraham with love, Isaac with power, and Jacob with glory. Like the “money, fame, and happiness” of Careers, “love, power, and glory” are Levi Yitzchak’s set of what life offers.
Why, then, he asks, does the Amidah, our most important daily prayer, begin by praising “God of Abraham” (love) while omitting “God of Isaac and Jacob” (power and glory)? Because, he replies, power and glory are valuable only when they lead to love.
The least desirable option may be power. It derives from many things — money, social standing, and political intrigue, for example — the attainment of which may entail dealings that are morally repugnant. And once we have the power, we may use it equally despicably. There is nothing inherently wrong with power, however, because it can just as easily be exercised for human betterment — a value in itself — and the means toward winning the love of those whom that power benefits.
Glory, too, is well worth having, but not for its own sake. Glory alone is ephemeral. People glorify us with praise and honors when we are at our height, but we inevitably age while others occupy the spotlight. When we die, people need reminding about how famous we once were; we don’t even get to enjoy our own eulogies. Like power, however, glory has the potential to attract love, since the glory we enjoy positions us to influence the course of the world, and to be loved for the good we accomplish.
Both power and glory succeed only if exercised in ways that demonstrate our love for others, and earn the love of others in return. Any way you look at it, says Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, success in the end is love: love offered and love received.
Looking back on Careers, I wonder now why players sometimes chose money and fame without happiness. The answer lies in the era itself, the 1950s and ’60s, the decades after World War II when the booming American economy focused on boys becoming men (not yet girls becoming women), and men (not yet women) achieving money and fame. We now include women as well, and seeing how many men of that “men-only” era died “successfully” rich and famous but not happy, we have collapsed “money, fame, and happiness” into “happiness” alone as the sole be-all and end-all.
Find your passion; do what makes you happy. This is today’s mantra for success in our careers.
By contrast, Levi Yitzchak advocates love as the only thing worth having; and his concern is not just the careers we choose but the lives we lead. Also, the love he advocates is more than romantic love that may or may not come our way. He means the love we earn from family, friends, and neighbors — and strangers, too, even people far away who benefit unknowingly from what we do and never know our name.
Love, after all, is Abraham, who, God promised, would be a “blessing to all the families of the earth” (Genesis 12:2-3). Forget Careers. Practice “lech lecha” — “go out” into the world to be a blessing, to love, and to be loved. That’s all that matters.