There is a verse in Ethics of Our Fathers which states, “Who is rich? He who is happy with what he has.” It’s a verse which I have heard many times in my life, but never internalized. Until now.

It began with a late-night text from Dena, a close friend of mine: “Don’t want you to worry, but we had a fire. Thank G‑d, we managed to get out in time, but the house is gone.”

As my eyes scanned the message, thoughts flashed through my mind in rapid succession. “How could this happen? She is the girl who has everything—the perfect husband, great kids, a comfortable lifestyle, and wonderful parents.” In short, embarrassing as it is to admit, I had always been jealous of her. Not outright jealous, but envious in that under-the-surface way that can eat away at you if you’re not careful.

Who is rich?

But now, pondering the total devastation of all her material possessions, all feelings of envy were gone. The flames that destroyed Dena’s home forced me to re-evaluate—and for the first time, appreciate—the riches I possess. It was a gradual progression, which began with the most minute of details. As Dena shopped for toothbrushes for her family, I began to appreciate my own well-stocked bathroom. As she told me that her girls wore sneakers to shul (synagogue) on Shabbat because their Shabbat shoes were destroyed, I peaked appreciatively at the four pairs of shiny black patent leather Shabbat shoes lined up in my girls’ closet. When Chanukah rolled around and I lovingly polished my husband’s shiny silver menorah, I listened to my friend sadly lament that they just couldn’t afford a new silver menorah right then. And when the first snowy season hit and I dug through the bottomless bucket of winter gear trying to find matching gloves, my friend was forced to run out and restock.

As I lived through all the “firsts” with Dena—the first year without her special Seder plate, her Purim costumes, and even her bathing suits—I was forced to see my own life though a new lens. No longer did I take for granted the “little things.” I began to appreciate that the seemingly unimportant minutia that make up our lives are in reality quite important. Once I caught a glimpse of the world through this new perspective, using what I call “my gratitude glasses,” I began to see those around me in a whole new light.

Take, for example, my former classmate, who comes from an extremely wealthy family. She doesn’t work and has full-time cleaning help, and I have been known to drool at the size of her kitchen. However, all is not as it seems, and taking a step back allowed me to better analyze the wealth factor in our friendship. For, you see, her mother, a relatively young woman, is in a coma after a sudden stroke, and her mother-in-law recently passed away after suffering for years. Her children are deprived of their grandmothers, and she of the motherly advice upon which we all depend. “How,” I asked myself, “can I, with a wonderful mother and a supportive mother-in-law, ever be jealous of her?!” In fact, if given the chance, I’m positive she would trade her material wealth for my much more meaningful familial relations.

Or look at the friends who, although their income is certainly greater than mine, are forced to spend thousands of dollars a year on tutors for their three learning disabled sons. So while they do have the money for “extras,” I don’t envy their struggles.

I don't envy their struggles

I recently heard an interesting idea at a lecture. Imagine if everyone’s lot in life was laid out on a table in labeled paper bags: “wonderful spouse who suffers untimely death,” “wealth beyond imagination, but childless for twenty years,” “handicapped with upbeat personality, supportive spouse, and satisfying job,” and so on. Given the choice, we would all pick the “bag” describing our own life. For the grass on the other side is often in reality brown and dry, and when forced to seriously reflect on our lot in life, we appreciate the many positives within it and would choose it all over again.

And this, I think, is the essence of the verse quoted above. Who is truly rich? He who is satisfied with his portion in life, who takes the time to ponder the unique role for which he, and he alone, was created, and who appreciates the unique talents with which he was endowed.

At the same time, we must accept, and on a higher level, even welcome, those challenges and tribulations which might threaten our own sense of personal wealth.

We alone control the key to our own personal happiness.