Chapter 2: Being Happy At All
Are the above concepts merely theories, or can we actually apply
them to our lives? How can we come to terms with all the unpleasant
things that happen, particularly if they are very painful, and
they hurt. How can we say that everything that happens —
even these painful things — is good, because it comes from
The Talmud tells us of two sages, Rabbi Akiva and his teacher,
Nachum Ish Gamzu, whose conduct provides us with exemplary illustrations
of how to resolve these questions. There was one phrase that Rabbi
Akiva would continually repeat: “Kol mah d’oveid Rachmono,
l’tov oveid.” It means, “Everything that G-d
does is for the good.”1
Nachum Ish Gamzu had a similar phrase. He would say, “Gam
zu l’tovah,” meaning “This is also for the good.”2
In fact, he would repeat this phrase so often that people called
him Nachum Ish Gamzu, meaning, Nachum, the Gamzu man — the
man who always says gam zu l’tovah.
On the surface, it seems that they were both saying the same
thing, just phrasing it in different words. But the truth is that
the difference between them goes beyond semantics. Each had a
different approach and a different level of perceiving how everything
that happens comes from G-d and is good. The difference between
them is reflected in the stories the Talmud tells us about each
of these men, showing how their adages became translated into
The Talmud tells us that once, while Rabbi Akiva was on a journey,
he needed a place to spend the night. He knocked on the door of
one of the homes in the town he was passing through, but the owner
did not invite him in. He was not upset, for he realized, “Everything
G-d does is for the good.”
He knocked on another door, but again he was not offered hospitality.
His reaction remained the same, “Everything G-d does is
for the good.” Even after he had gone from door to door
and realized that no one in the town was going to accept him as
a guest, he still said, “Everything G-d does is for the
He had no choice but to camp in a forest lying at the outskirts
of the town. He was traveling with a donkey to carry his packages,
a rooster to wake him up early, and a lamp with which he could
study at night. Shortly after he encamped, a lion devoured his
donkey, his rooster was killed by another predator, and a strong
wind blew out his fire. After each of these events, Rabbi Akiva
said, “Everything that happens is for the good.”
And the Talmud continues, telling us that he was right. On the
following morning, he discovered that during the night, a Roman
legion had attacked this village and taken its people as captives.
Had he been accepted as a guest in one of these homes, he too,
would have been taken captive.
And if his donkey or rooster had been alive, their braying and
crowing would have attracted the legionnaires’ attention.
Had his candle remained burning, they would have been able to
see him in the forest. “Everything that happened was for
The story of Nachum Ish Gamzu took place in the following setting:
The Roman emperor had decreed a terrible decree against the Jews
in Eretz Yisroel , and the Jews had sent Nachum Ish Gamzu as their
representative to petition the emperor to annul the decree. They
gave him a chest full of precious gems to present to the emperor
as a gift in the hope of appeasing him.
On his way, Nachum Ish Gamzu stopped at an inn. The innkeeper
realized that the Rabbi was carrying jewels in this chest. During
the night, he and his family removed the gems and filled the chest
with sand. When Nachum woke up in the morning and prepared to
continue his journey, he realized the change in the chest’s
weight. Although he saw that the jewels had been stolen and exchanged
for sand, he remained unfazed.
He said gam zu l’tovah, “this also is for the good,”
and continued to Rome. There he gained an audience with the emperor
and presented him with the request of the Jewish people and their
When the emperor opened the chest and saw the sand, he became
enraged and ordered the Rabbi to be thrown into the dungeon. One
of the king’s advisors — actually, the Talmud teaches
us, he was not really an advisor, but Elijah the Prophet in disguise
— spoke up on the Rabbi’s behalf.
“Do you think the Jews have lost their senses?” he
asked the emperor. “They are coming to appease you and ask
a favor. Why would they want to mock you? The Rabbi knows that
he could be killed for bringing you sand.
“This cannot be ordinary sand. It must be something special.
In the Jews’ tradition, it says that their forefather Abraham
used special sand to defeat his enemies. He fought against four
strong kings. How was he able to vanquish them? He took sand and
threw it into the air, and the sand turned into arrows and spears.
Perhaps this is the same special sand.”
The emperor was willing to experiment. The Romans were waging
a war at that time, and they took the sand out to the battlefront.
And the same miracle took place. They threw the sand in the air,
and it became arrows and spears. Stunned and dismayed, the enemy
was soon vanquished.
Needless to say, the emperor was very pleased with this news.
He had Nachum Ish Gamzu taken out of the dungeon and thanked him
for the wonderful gift that he had brought. He nullified the decree
against the Jews, filled the chest that the Rabbi had brought
with precious gems, and gave it to him as a present.
The two stories share a fundamental similarity. Both Rabbi Akiva
and Nachum Ish Gamzu firmly believed that everything that happened
was positive in nature. Even when confronted with adversity, they
saw, in a very short period of time, that their belief was well-founded.
Even the unfavorable circumstances in which they found themselves
led to a positive outcome.
Nevertheless, if we look closely at these two stories, we can
distinguish between the approaches of these two sages. Rabbi Akiva’s
statement, “Everything that G-d does is for the good,”
implies that since the situation is ordained by Divine Providence,
G-d is behind it. Therefore, we can be sure that it will eventually
lead to a favorable outcome.
In other words, the situation itself may be painful or unpleasant,
but it will lead to a positive outcome. If we were to know the
positive results from the outset, we would decide that it is worth
enduring this negative experience for the sake of the positive
experience. Rabbi Akiva taught that even when a person does not
have such foreknowledge, he should have the faith that G-d is
controlling his experience and should therefore accept everything
To illustrate: Take a person undergoing a surgical operation:
If a person who knows nothing about modern medicine would walk
into the operating room, he would be terrified by the sight. A
person is lying on a table with his hands and feet tied down.
Someone with a mask on his face is standing over him with a knife
in his hand, cutting away at his body.
It would not be surprising for such a person to scream “Murder!”
But he would be screaming only because of his ignorance, because
he does not see what the operation is leading to. He would respond
differently if he knew that this is a process of healing which
will improve the patient’s health. Indeed, the patient is
paying dearly for the surgery, and has waited weeks or even months
for his turn to come.
What is the point of the analogy? Surgery is a painful experience;
it is uncomfortable and unpleasant. But a person is willing to
undergo such an experience because he believes the outcome will
be so positive that it will have been worthwhile.
And this is the way Rabbi Akiva saw everything in life. He realized
that everything comes from G-d. And so he believed that even the
painful and negative experiences would eventually lead to something
positive. These concepts were reflected in the story mentioned
above. Rabbi Akiva confronted adversity. Yet, from the negative
experience, good emerged. And indeed, the good was worth bearing
the negative experiences which preceded it.
Nachum Ish Gamzu’s approach was even deeper. He believed
that since all situations were brought about by Divine Providence,
not only would a situation that looked unfavorable eventually
lead to a positive outcome, but that it was itself a positive
event; “This is also for the good.” To refer to the
story mentioned previously, the exchange of gems for sand was
a positive thing. Although at the time nobody realized that it
was positive, Nachum Ish Gamzu had faith. And after a few days,
everyone discovered how right he was.
The exchange worked far more effectively than anyone would have
dreamed. Who knows whether the king would have been impressed
by the precious gems and jewels? Precious stones would not have
been anything new for him. The sand, by contrast, was definitely
something that impressed the king and had a tremendous impact
Why can’t we, like Nachum Ish Gamzu, be happy in all situations?
To put it bluntly, we are ignorant and unaware. We have not developed
ourselves, and moreover, even the most developed person cannot
have the same understanding as G-d. Therefore, we cannot always
see or understand that a situation is good.
Let us take another example: a mother who is feeding her child.
A person walking by the house might hear screaming and shouting;
the child is hysterical. The passerby peeks in through the window
and sees the mother standing next to the child. She has a spoonful
of food and is trying to feed him.
What would you say? Is the mother doing something negative that
will eventually lead to something positive, or is what she is
doing positive now? We do not need any time to ponder the answer;
indeed, the very question is hard to conceive. The mother is doing
something very positive. She is contributing to the health, growth
and development of her child.
Why is the child crying? Because he is an infant, and he does
not understand that what his mother is doing is for his benefit.
He just feels uncomfortable with this big spoon sticking in his
mouth and food pouring all over the place. Because of his lack
of awareness, even though his mother is doing something for his
benefit, he cries loudly.
A child may be, after all, only about twenty or so years younger
than his mother, and the difference between their levels of understanding
is measurable. Nevertheless, the child can suffer from a lack
of awareness that prevents him from understanding that what his
mother is doing is good for him.
How much more so does this apply with regard to G-d, who is infinite?
Indeed, when we are speaking about G-d, even the term “infinite”
is not a sufficient description. Is it, therefore, any wonder
that we cannot always understand what G-d is doing, why He is
doing it, and that what He is doing is actually good? The difficulty,
however, is merely a product of our limited understanding; in
truth, everything that He does is good.
Since Divine Providence is controlling everything, a person should
never see himself as a victim of circumstance. Whatever happens
to him is ordained by G-d for a purpose, one that is ultimately
for the person’s own good. It is just that there are two
kinds of good: goodness that is openly apparent, and goodness
that is disguised and requires a frame of mind like that of Nachum
Ish Gamzu or Rabbi Akiva to appreciate it.
We each encounter situations that are upsetting, and yet shortly
afterwards we see that things work out for the best. How many
times has it happened that a person missed his appointment, but
because he missed the appointment, he was saved from a unfavorable
investment, or was free to use his time differently and discovered
a very positive opportunity.