Mental Health in The Parsha: When Less is More

Yaakov’s Curious Request

In this week’s Torah portion (Vayeitzei), as Yaakov runs away from his brother Esav towards his uncle Lavan, he pauses to offer a prayer. He beseeches Hashem and promises that if God guards him against danger and provides him with bread to eat and clothes to wear, then he will keep the faith and Hashem will be his God. The Kli Yakar, a 17th-century commentator, explains that Yaakov was not requesting physical protection and conditioning his faith on Hashem providing for him. Rather, he was spelling out the prerequisites for avoiding sin and increasing the likelihood of him returning spiritually whole. He specifically asked for only the bare necessities of bread and clothes. This would allow him to focus on spirituality without becoming distracted by the hedonic treadmill and ultimately neglecting his relationship with Hashem. 

Wealth vs. Happiness

The pursuit of money, career promotions, and fame often blinds us from the connections and experiences that bring true happiness and fulfillment in our lives. Without realizing it, we often trade our religion, family, and serenity for external expectations far beyond our original goals. As is famously brought down in Kohelet Rabbah 1:13, “He who has one hundred will want two hundred, and he who has two hundred will want four hundred.” The more we make, the bigger our desires grow and the harder we work to attain them at the expense of other areas in our life. It is often those who seemingly have the best lives and the most to be happy for that find themselves and their children with the greatest mental health deficiencies and the need to seek out therapy for lack of fulfillment and meaning in their lives. In 2018, Purdue University analyzed data from the Gallup World Poll and found that an income of $95,000 for a family of four leads to the highest life satisfaction, and people making around $65,000 have the greatest emotional well being. Once household income exceeds $105,000, happiness levels decrease. Granted, in many Jewish communities, the cost of living is significantly higher and the correlated salaries will increase, but it is important to note that there is a limit. Having a larger house, grander vacations, and more opulent vehicles does not necessarily lead to greater happiness. If we want to protect our own and our family’s spirituality and mental health, remember that sometimes less is more. Improving work-life balance may lower the cash in our bank accounts, but it is also likely to significantly improve our emotional well being and ability to lead an honest, purposeful life.

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Ariel Mintz, MD
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