The Central Bureau of Statistics recent survey of Israelis’ general level of satisfaction with their lives contains a number of surprises. For instance, 80% of Israelis describe themselves as basically satisfied with life, despite the omnipresent terror and crumbling economy. (A follow-up survey by Ha’aretz determined that when asked to specify further their level of satisfaction, 45% were fairly satisfied and 35% very satisfied.) Less widely reported was that haredim are even more satisfied than their secular counterparts. Almost all haredim – 95% -- describe themselves as satisfied with life.
Even more shocking, haredim are more likely to say they are satisfied with their general economic situation than secular Israelis – 66% vs. 56%. It is hard to square that result with the howls of pain coming from the haredi sector over recent budget cuts in child allowances or with the oft-repeated message that haredim constitute the poorest segment of the Jewish population.
No doubt both secular and haredi respondents painted an overly rosy picture of their economic situation: secular Israelis so as not to appear as losers and haredi because of the religious imperative, ``Who is a rich man? He who is happy with his portion." The evaluation of general life satisfaction that both groups gave to their neighbors, as opposed to themselves, would seem to buttress that conclusion. Only 59% of secular Israelis and 70% of haredim felt that those around them are satisfied with life.
Still, the high levels of general satisfaction expressed by haredim and the differential between haredi and secular respondents remain curiosities in search of an explanation. Above all, the results demonstrate the degree to which poverty is a social construct.
People define themselves as poor in comparison to others. When everyone else is in relatively the same boat, one does not feel so poor. That is pretty much the case in the haredi world, which is not beset by the same gaping chasm between rich and poor as the broader Israeli society.
In addition, haredim are relatively insulated from the popular media, with its constant celebration of the lives of the rich and famous. They are not bombarded, as are the unemployed in development towns, by constant images reminding them how poorly they live compared to the happy families seen on TV.
Because wealth confers little social status in Israeli haredi culture there is relatively little economic competition and conspicuous consumption. The story is told of a wealthy Jew from America who entered the apartment of one of Bnei Brak’s most venerated Torah scholars and found him learning completely surrounded by the beds of his sleeping children. On the spot, the philanthropist offered to buy the scholar a larger apartment.
When the latter showed no interest, the philanthropist pressed his case with his mother, reasoning that she would certainly be concerned about her son’s material comfort. The mother, however, not only refused the offer, but accused the would-be donor of ``cruelty." ``Hundreds of young Torah scholars live happily today in crowded apartments," she told the surprised philanthropist, ``because they know that Reb Chaim lives no better than they do. Take that away, and they will find themselves beset by worries about the size of their apartments."
At a deeper level, Aristotle was right when he observed that happiness is a quality of the soul, not a function of one’s material circumstances. We all know people who live miserable lives despite being blessed with every material good, and others who have gone through tragedy after tragedy without ever losing their smiles.
Simcha, a generalized sense of well-being, is not something that can be pursued as a goal in itself. Rather it is the outgrowth of doing something else right. From a Jewish point of view, that something right is being connected to God.
That message is central to the Sukkot holiday, which begins tonight. One of the greatest modern Jewish thinkers, Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, describes our departure from the comfort and security of our homes to live for seven days under the stars as a form of mini-Exile. That temporary exile is a corrective for the sinat chinam, causeless hatred, which led to our present Exile.
If we see our neighbors as competitors over a limited economic pie, we will tend to turn a jaundiced eye in their direction. The sukkah is the antidote to perceiving the world in terms of a zero-sum competition. When we leave our homes and place ourselves directly under God’s protection, we negate the material world and move into the spiritual world.
The latter is infinite because He is infinite. In the world of Spirit, people cease to be competitors because one person’s spiritual growth is not at another’s expense. Indeed it facilitates the growth of those around him. To the extent that one’s focus is on spiritual growth, then, he is freed from the jealousy and obsessive pursuit of honor that come from viewing life as a competition – and which our Sages say drain life of all joy.
If the CBS survey is to be believed, the haredi world has to a large degree internalized this message. May we all do so, so that this Sukkot is truly a zman simachateinu, a time of our rejoicing, heralding the end of our long Exile.