06/15/2012 05:09 EDT | Updated 08/15/2012 05:12 EDT

How To Stop The Cycle of Unhappiness

Have you ever tried arguing with a three-year-old? It is definitely a no-win situation. Let me give you an example. A certain three-year-old I know might say to me: "I want chocolate milk in a sippy cup." I will then pour the milk into the sippy cup and add the chocolate syrup. No sooner will I add the syrup than I will be told, "Actually, I want plain milk, or strawberry milk, and I want it in a plain cup, not a sippy cup. Wait. Don't shake it. Wait, I want the powdered chocolate not the syrup." Just try convincing the three-year-old that he just asked for the exact opposite of what he now wants.

But how different is this psychology of the average three-year-old from that of many of us vis-à-vis the choices we ourselves make in life?

In a nutshell this is the sin of the generation of the Israelites who lived in the desert and accepted a bad report about the land of Israel from spies that were sent to scout out the land. Although the immediate sin of the Israelites is that they believed this bad report about Israel, their underlying sin is that they are constantly unhappy with what Hashem has given them in life. And now that Hashem gives them what they thought they wanted, they are suddenly unhappy with that as well. Their rationale and decision making is comparable to a three-year-old.

The underlying message of the Torah is that we should not define happiness by what we don't have, but by what we do have. The Torah teaches us that the happiness we seek is literally right in front of our eyes.

The same Torah portion that begins with the sin of the spies and the Israelites in the desert ends with the third paragraph of the Shema -- the cardinal statement of Jewish faith -- that we recite twice a day. The message of the third paragraph of the Shema is the antidote to this mentality of always seeking happiness in the wrong places.

The third paragraph of the Shema commands us to attach fringes -- tzitzit -- to the corners of our garments. According to the Talmud tzitzit represent all of the commandments of the Torah. The Talmud also recommends grabbing onto one's tzitzit if one is afraid of succumbing to temptation and sinning.

Thus, tzitzit is essentially a reminder to us to avoid seeking happiness in the wrong places.

There is a biblical commandment to place upon the tzitzit a petil tekhelet, a blue fringe, a thread dyed with the color blue (15:38). This color blue was a very special color: in ancient and medieval times it was the color of royalty.

But there is an interesting law about this blue dye. According to the rabbis (Menachot 44a) this blue dye had to come from a creature of the sea called a chilazon. There was, however, an identical color blue from an indigo plant that is called kala ilan (ibid. 40a). At first glance, the Talmud (ibid. 43a) tells us, the two colors of blue look exactly the same. But only the blue of the chilazon is considered acceptable.

So if the two colors look exactly the same, how does one tell the two blues apart?

The Talmud says that one must do an experiment, for the blue of the chilazon creature will not fade, but the indigo blue will fade. The Talmud recommends taking the dyed thread and soaking it in alum, sap of fenugreek, and urine that is forty days old. If the thread fades, it is indigo, and thus invalid. If it doesn't fade then it is the acceptable chilazon.

Recently we have used this technique to identify the modern tekhelet that more and more Jews are beginning to wear. I proudly wear this blue thread on my tzitzit every day.

From the close of the Talmudic period through the nineteenth century the blue dye of the chilazon was considered lost. But then in the nineteenth century, Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner (known as the Radziner Rebbe), argued that the black/blue dye that shot out of a squid was the tekhelet dye (see his Petil Tekhelet, 1888). The only problem with his theory was that this dye would fade. So a chemist added a Prussian Blue (the equivalent of kalla ilan) to this dye and it didn't fade anymore. The Radziner Rebbe didn't realize that it was the Prussian Blue that prevented the fading.

The former chief rabbi of Israel (from 1937-1959), Dr. Yitzchak Isaac ha-Levi Herzog, said that this cannot be the tekhelet because the dye of the tekhelet doesn't fade. (See Ehud Spanier, The Royal Purple and Biblical Blue (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing, 1987).

But recently -- in the past twenty years -- it was discovered that the Murex snail is actually the creature that the ancient rabbis were referring to. This snail will produce a blue dye. To prove that this is the real tekhelet, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, who is both a rosh yeshivah at Yeshiva University's rabbinical school and a scientist in their college, took the tekhelet and soaked it in bleach for a week.

Even after one week in bleach, its color did not fade. This is one of the ways that we know that the Murex snail is actually the chilazon, and its dye is the true and valid tekhelet. [See Rabbi Moshe Tendler, "Identifying Tekhelet: Masoret and Yediyah," Tekhelet: Renaissance of a Mitzvah (New York: YU Press, 1996).]

The true tekhelet never fades. Not in urine or in bleach. The difference between tekhelet and kala ilan is like the difference between the true happiness of life that the Torah represents and the ephemeral nature of materialistic pleasure. Materialistic pleasure produces a happiness that appears happy but will eventually fade.

In contrast, the Torah's path in life remains constant. It reminds us to cling to the Eternal One, to Hashem, and not to wander after the fleeting pleasures of our eyes and attempt to seek happiness elsewhere. True happiness can be found in what we already have in our lives by realizing that everything we have is a gift from Hashem. Authentic happiness, like the tekhelet, will never fade.

When we recite the third paragraph of Shema morning and evening, and when we look at the tekhelet, we are reminding ourselves not to wander after a false happiness. And if we don't wander after a false happiness then our happiness will be like the authentic tekhelet.

This is what the promise of following the path of the Torah offers. Its message is so beautiful and rewarding and joyous and happy...and it will never fade.