Basking in our bounty of discontent

True wealth comes from being content with one’s lot, a maxim that, until last week, I had never thought to contest.

World Zionist Organization521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
World Zionist Organization521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shimon Peres vs Ben-Zoma. To the latter is ascribed the age-old adage that true wealth comes from being content with one’s lot, a maxim that, until last week, I had never thought to contest.
Then along comes our indefatigable president in an Independence Day interview with Channel 2’s Rina Matzliah and, in his own inimitable way, challenges the ancient wisdom of our sages.
As he is approaching the age of 90, and with the life experience he has amassed, I don’t begrudge him the right to do so.
Still, I found his observation on the matter a bit unsettling.
It had to do with what he believes to be the loftiest blessing our people have bequeathed to the human race. Not monotheism. Not the Bible. Not even drip irrigation or some newfangled hitech innovation. No.
“If you ask me,” said the president, “what the Jewish people’s greatest contribution is to the world, my answer is discontentment.”
Yes, true wealth, it would appear, results not from being happy with what one has, but from being unhappy with the way things are. “Because then,” he went on, “you create, you try to create and to change things.”
I suppose that’s another way of explaining tikkun olam, the deeply rooted Jewish ethic of striving to repair the world. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” goes another dictum, one most certainly not found among the sayings of our fathers. Because by tradition, we seem always to see things as damaged, fragmented or incomplete.
Complaining, in fact, is serious business for us, and nowhere does it find more serious expression than in our humor.
Remember the one about the two Jews vacationing at a Catskills resort? One of them remarks about how dreadful the food is. “And what’s worse,” says her friend, “is that the portions are so small.”
Even when something is terrible, we can’t seem to get enough of it.
Closer to home, I am reminded of the joke that made the rounds at the beginning of the mass Russian immigration nearly a generation back. An activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry meets surreptitiously with a refusenik in Moscow.
“What’s your economic situation like here?” he asks.
“Can’t complain,” says Vladimir.
“And your housing?” “Can’t complain about that, either,” comes the response.
“Then what about your sense of freedom, your ability to speak openly about things?” “Again, I really can’t complain,” he insists.
Clearly befuddled, the activist asks in frustration, “So then tell me, why are you willing to risk everything by applying to move to Israel?” “Because there I can complain!” Yes indeed. The untold riches that have awaited one wave of immigrants after another since the inception of the Zionist enterprise. But newcomer or veteran, it makes no difference. All of us seem to have the gift of perceiving our surroundings as imperfect while somehow driven to make them better.
And nothing attests to the power of this discontent more than the goings-on of the last two years, and the last several months in particular. The mass demonstrations demanding social justice during the summer of 2011 led to the unexpected election results in the winter of 2013 which, with a bit of luck, will in turn herald our own Israeli spring in the weeks to come.
Still, whatever the developments, Peres would caution us not to lull ourselves into a state of gratification.
“But today, when we are celebrating 65 years of statehood, can’t we feel satisfied?” asks Matzliah wistfully.
The president: “Yes, certainly. But – No! We can look back with satisfaction. But to feel satisfied today? Absolutely not!" WHICH BRINGS us to the celebration of Herzl Day, marked each year in the afterglow of Independence Day but deserving of mention in its own right. Back in 2004, 100 years after the death of the visionary of the Jewish state, the Knesset legislated that his birthday would be marked annually in our schools and on our army bases and in public events throughout the country, with study, ceremony and activity highlighting the dreams and deeds of Zionism’s founding father.
Nowhere is this felt more keenly than on the mount that bears his name, where earlier this week 1,000 of our finest youngsters gathered in the World Zionist Organization’s Herzl Center to participate in a series of workshops aimed at reinforcing their commitment to fulfilling the Zionist dream. Representing a dozen youth groups, they were all 18-year-olds who had taken a year off between high school and the army to give a year of volunteer service to the country that had nurtured them even before they would be called upon to defend it.
Here the president’s message was thoroughly taken to heart. From its inception, the Herzl Center was conceived as a place where the visitor would feel tremendous pride in everything that had already been achieved by others in years gone by – but also a similar degree of restlessness over the way things are now, so that they might be stimulated to consider their own role in shaping this nation as the exemplary society we set out to build.
“Look back with satisfaction,” says Shimon Peres. “But to feel satisfied today? Absolutely not!” Not if we want to make things better.
Which makes a recent poll regarding the degree of satisfaction we Israelis do feel about our lives here somewhat worrisome.
In a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israel ranked eight out of 36 on the Life Satisfaction Index.
Are we really that obtuse, oblivious to all the troubles we need to contend with? Someone who seems to have a better grasp of the way things really are here in the Holy Land is Alasdair Conn, chief of emergency services at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the immediate aftermath of the tragic Boston Marathon bombing, he noted in an interview that “this is like a bomb explosion that we hear about in the news in Baghdad, or Israel or some other tragic place in the world.”
That’s us, just another tragic place in the world! Somewhat unbelievable, isn’t it, that that is how others perceive us.
Here it just doesn’t feel that way, does it? Maybe that’s because we have the freedom to complain, and the imagination to do so creatively.
May we be inspired by our president, then, to continue to remain dissatisfied with the present so that we will be able, in the future, to look back on the past with the deep sense of satisfaction deservedly felt today as we celebrate 65 years of statehood, basking in the bounty of our discontent, even as we keep dreaming of a better tomorrow. ■
The writer is vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel.
The opinions expressed herein are his own.