In the times of castles and moats, there lived a princess. An only child, her life was to be one of comfort, lavishness and splendor from the cradle to the grave. She wore only satin and silk. She was served only the finest delicacies. She lived an enchanted existence until her twentieth year.
One day, the princess went for a walk in the woods and lost her way. Wandering for hours on end, she realized that she couldn’t find her way back to the castle. Exhausted, she lay down on the bare ground and fell asleep. She dreamed that she would never make it back home, that she was destined to spend the rest of her life in the woods.
She woke up with a start, looked around, and realized that it wasn’t just a dream; she was still in the forest. In a desperate panic, she ran — bumping, crashing, falling down and getting back up again. Hour after hour, she ran deeper and deeper into the forest… and further and further from the castle. Exhausted, she collapsed and again fell into a deep slumber. When she awoke, she realized that if she didn’t eat, she would die. She remembered that some of the berries and roots in the woods were edible, so she scrounged together some sort of nourishment and passed the time. Soon the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months.
After more than a year, her clothes tattered, her hair disheveled, she stumbled onto a clearing in the forest and saw what looked like a shack made of logs. She approached, slowly, cautiously… There were no sounds.
Silently, she circled the shack. It was empty. She opened the door, looked in, and saw a well-tended, primitive home with a table, chairs, and a fireplace. It looked like someone had recently been there. In the corner sat a wood-framed bed with straw for the mattress. Exhausted, and not having slept in a bed for over a year, she lay down and immediately fell into a deep slumber.
Many hours later, she awoke with a start, and saw a peasant standing over her. He was large, coarse, and darker than any man she had ever seen. But as shocked as she was to see him, he was equally taken aback by her presence.
A thousand thoughts raced through her mind. “Will he harm me? Who is he? Does he speak my language?” Before she had a chance to utter a word, he brought her a blanket and covered her with it. Out of absolute exhaustion, she fell back asleep.
When she woke up in the morning, she realized that she was alone again. The man was gone. She looked around the shack with its dirt floor, holes in the walls, and simple wood table and chairs. “It has almost a cozy look to it,” she thought to herself. Slowly wiping the sleep from her eyes, she noticed a bowl of warm porridge on the table. Famished, she wolfed it down.
Her eyes filled with tears as she thought back to what were now distant times — to her home, the castle, bedecked with the finest ornaments; to her wardrobe, made of the most delicate fabrics; to her bedding, the smoothest satin and silk. She got up and wandered outside.
The smell of spring was in the air, and freshness seemed to hang in the clearing. She stretched her arms and took in the sweet smells. When she opened her eyes, she realized the peasant was there — standing at a distance, watching her.
He slowly approached.
He opened his mouth to speak. It was her language, but crude and broken. He was a simple man — uneducated and unrefined. He was, however, kind. Every day, she found her food prepared, and every day he returned from the forest bearing gifts — one day flowers, the next day a bowl carved from wood.
Time passed, and she began to feel almost at home in this hovel. She even felt herself somewhat attracted to this man. She remembered that first night in the woods when she dreamed that her destiny was to spend the rest of her days in the forest. Slowly she made peace with her fate. Within a short time, they married.
Her life in the forest is most difficult. She spends her days weaving, sewing, peeling and cooking — everything done by hand. And the winters are so harsh: bitter and unending, month after month of frigid cold, and she must wear the coarsest of garments that scratch her skin, yet barely keep out the cold. The only source of heat in the cottage is the fire that dies down after a few hours. Most nights, she wakes up shivering in the cold, and then her mind turns back to her youth, to the life of splendor and luxuries that she always thought would be her future.
What makes it even harder is that while her husband is good to her, none of the things that he brings her makes her happy — they just don’t mean anything. He carves some beads, puts them on a string, and gives them to her, but her mind travels back to the pearls and diamonds that she wore long ago. He cooks some oats mixed with herbs for her, and she remembers the servants carrying in tray after tray of delicacies. Every gift fills her with melancholy as it pulls her back to an earlier life.
The Mesillas Yesharim explains that this is a mashal (parable) to our lives. Part of me is the princess; part of me is the peasant. Each has its needs; each has its purpose. Part of me is a holy spirit that only seeks that which is noble, right and proper. It came from under Hashem’s throne of glory, where it enjoyed the most sublime existence. Being of pure intelligence, it desires only to be generous and giving. It aspires to greatness. It was put into this world on a mission and it recognizes the importance and significance of life. Everything great in man comes from this part.
But there is the other part of me: the peasant. It too has desires; it too has needs. It is made up of all of the instincts and drives found in the animal kingdom. This part has no wisdom or self-control; it is comprised of hungers and appetites. It was programmed with all that man needs to keep alive and functioning in this world.
The conscious I, the part that thinks and remembers, is made up of both of these parts — the princess and the peasant. The reason that man has such difficulty achieving peace of mind is that both spirits move him in opposite directions — each pulls toward its own nature. The peasant part of man’s soul desires everything that is here and now. It is simple. It can’t see the future. It can only relate to that which is revealed and obvious. Based in the physical world, all that it knows are things of a material nature. Give it a place to sleep and something to eat, and it is happy.
The other part of me, the princess, desires so much more. She finds no satisfaction from anything in this world; she views all luxuries and material possessions as cheap tinsel. She finds every pleasure of this world coarse and unattractive. Bring her all the money that money can buy, and still she remains unmoved. It means nothing to her because she comes from a much higher place.
This part, the nishamah, also hungers — but not for food and drink; it hungers for meaning and purpose. It wants to grow, to accomplish, to change itself and the world it lives in. More than anything, it craves a relationship with its Creator.
One of the most elusive thoughts that seems ever to escape us is that I am a combination of these two elements. The conscious I, the part that thinks, feels, and remembers is comprised of both components. I am the princess, and I am the peasant. And because there are two sides to me, I desire very conflicting things. One moment I desire everything good and proper, and the very next moment, my entire focus is on things base and empty.
The strange part of it all is that I am normal. I don’t have multiple personalities. I am a fully functional, sane human being. That, however, is the point. I am a human, and that is the way that Hashem made us humans.
Until a person comes to grips with these two parts of his personality, he won’t understand what makes him tick, and his own motives and drives will remain a mystery — even to him. Once he focuses on these two parts of “I,” then everything makes sense. The utter contradictions that make up our desires, the conflicting interests and needs that we experience, the competing sides to our nature, all come from this duality — the two parts of me.
Just as the peasant cries out for food and drink, the princess cries out for meaning and purpose, and for that reason we have such a difficult time enjoying this world. When a man lives his life in one dimension, filling his belly and then his pocketbook, the princess looks down her nose and says, “This is what I came to this world for? This is what life is all about?” And she lets him know her lack of satisfaction in very clear terms. She gives him no rest.
Man has two sides to him. When he meets the needs of both, he achieves a state of balance and harmony. He is at peace with himself. When that comes about, everything is beautiful. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and everything is wonderful. It may be raining outside, and you can’t pay your mortgage, but it is okay, because things have meaning. You understand life. You understand what you are doing here. And you experience true joy and fulfillment. You are happy.
The purpose of life isn’t happiness, and the Torah isn’t merely a “self-help happiness guide.” But a direct outcome of leading a Torah lifestyle is that you will be happy. The Torah is the guidebook to living a successful life. It was written by the only One who truly understands man — his Creator. When a person follows its ways, he is at peace with himself. Both the peasant and the princess have their needs met, and the person is in sync with himself.
Hashem Wants Us to Be Happy
Hashem wants us to be happy. Hashem created everything to give of His good to us. Even though the purpose of life is our station in the World to Come, Hashem wants us to be happy in this world as well. For that reason, He created so many amenities strictly for us to enjoy. But to enjoy them, a person must learn to use this world properly.
When man follows the Torah’s path, he grows, he accomplishes, and he achieves his purpose in Creation — and he is happy. In that state, he can enjoy all of the beauty of this world. It doesn’t distract him; it is a tool that he uses to further serve his Creator and enhance his growth. The challenge of life is not to get lost, not to get so caught up on the here and now that we forget that there is a tomorrow.
This is an abridged chapter from the new Shmuz on Life book: Stop Surviving and Start Living, based on the first chapter of Mesillat Yesharim, Path of the Just. This book as well as The Shmuz on the Parsha Book can be obtained by contacting 866-613-TORAH or by visiting TheShmuz.com. Please note that the word “Shmuz” is Yiddish for a mussar discourse. Over 200 shmuzen are available for free download or by purchasing CDs or MP3 players with these lectures.
Text Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier and Torah.org
This is an excerpt from the new Shmuz on Life book: Stop Surviving, Start Living. Available at Judaica stores, Feldheim.com and TheShmuz.com.