“These might be worth more than a tip one day.”
In 1922, a year after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, Albert Einstein was on a lecture tour of Japan. Finding himself short of change to tip the bellboy at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, the brilliant scientist asked the bellboy to wait a moment, promising that he’d give him something worth more than a few coins.
Taking a pen and two pieces of paper, Einstein proceeded to write two short notes for the bellboy on the secret of obtaining happiness. Satisfied, Einstein delivered these missives to the bellhop, and told him that in the long run, they might be more valuable than any tip could be.
In a literal sense, Einstein was correct: the two notes, whose existence was hitherto unknown, recently sold in a Jerusalem auction house for far more than had been expected, garnering their anonymous owner nearly $2 million. But, as Einstein promised nearly a century ago, the notes contain a deeper value, too. The advice they contain reflects millennia of Jewish wisdom, and can enrich all of us who read them.
One of Einstein’s notes reads, in German:
A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.
This echoes the words of the great First Century Jewish sage Shimon Ben Zoma, said “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” Shimon Ben Zoma - and Einstein - understood a truth that Judaism has long recognized: spending our time always pursuing the next big thing without enjoying what we already have isn’t a recipe for happiness, but a prescription for misery.
Jewish sages warned that “one who has 100 zuz (an ancient coin) desires to have 200” (Kohelet Rabbah 1:34). The contemporary Jerusalem-based teacher Rabbi Berel Wein has noted that the restless pursuit of ever greater projects, without stopping to reflect on all the blessings we already enjoy, remind him of a joke he once heard:
A man built himself an enormous mansion, and invited all his friends to come and see it. As he was showing them around, listening to their gasps of excitement, the man announced “This is nothing! Just wait until you see the next mansion I’m building for myself!
So many of us are that man, always looking on to the next project, not out of a sense of joyous purpose or deliberate anticipation, but because we find it nearly impossible to slow down and savor what we already have, and instead view the process of acquiring more and more as an end in itself.
As Einstein, like generations of Jewish thinkers before him counselled, taking a moment to appreciate what we already have is the surest route to appreciating our life and attaining happiness.
The second note that Einstein wrote for that long-ago bellboy reads in German:
Where there’s a will there’s a way.
The idea that one can struggle, persevere, and ultimately find a way to do what is most important to us is a profoundly Jewish concept. Jewish history itself is testament to the way that single-minded determination cal help us beat the odds, and fulfill our deepest dreams.
Through two thousand years of exile, the Jewish people doggedly held onto the belief that one day we would return to the Land of Israel. Even in the darkest times of our history, we refused to believe that our belief in God, our commitment to ethical behavior, would ever be silenced.
In fact, the week that Einstein’s notes on happiness were auctioned, synagogues around the world read the story of Abraham, the Jewish patriarch who first defied the entire world order of his day. In the Torah, we read how God said to Abraham “Lech lecha”, leave your home, your family, all you have known, and embark on a journey that I will show you. The road would be difficult, Abraham knew, but he realized that the rewards would be worth his struggle.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks notes that this is the partnership at the root of Jewish history: when we tap into our God-given potential, we are able to accomplish things that are greater than we ever could alone. “It is that courage to travel alone if necessary,” Rabbi Sacks notes, “to be different, to swim against the tide” that gives us strength. “To be a Jew is to be willing to hear the still, small voice of eternity urging us to travel, move, go on ahead, continuing Abraham’s journey toward that unknown destination at the far horizon of hope.
We each have the ability to accomplish great things, when we decide to push ourselves our utmost. As Einstein understood nearly a century ago, and as Jewish thinkers have understood for generations, we each have the seeds of greatness inside us.