This morning, when I stumbled into my kitchen to brew my first cup of coffee, I was greeted by not one, but two sinks—meat and dairy—containing a dirty jumble of dishes, pots, silverware, etc. The apartment I’m renting doesn’t have a dishwasher, and by the end of the day, I’m just not in the mood to clean up, especially since I lack the gene that requires everything to be tidy before retiring.

In 30 seconds, I could have my favorite no-muss no-fuss breakfast: cheese and gluten-free crackers—on a paper plate. On the other hand, I should make an egg-white omelet. But not only is the pan and spatula from yesterday’s breakfast still in the sink, it’s also not even on the top of the pile. A healthy breakfast would take some doing. But already, my work obligations for the day and my “To Do” list were on my mind, including a conversation I expected to be difficult.

That Work-Life Balance Thing

The work-life balance challenge is a tired cliché, but it got me thinking. Expecting to rock a perfect 10 across every domain of life is a guarantee for frustration and unhappiness, and so most of us don’t fall for that trap (anymore, that is). By now, we’ve all gotten the memo that we can’t have it all, and we cultivate happiness by becoming masters in the art of the trade-off.

But there is another mental trap that is more subtle: the unfounded belief that “having it all” should mean freedom from suffering. In the realm of emotional arithmetic, anything that hurts us diminishes our joy. Most of us identify as “good people,” but there is no one-size-fits-all answer to the classic question of why good people suffer. Whether it’s a minor irritant or a major heartbreak, we suffer when we think that something shouldn’t be happening—that it’s unfair, and we deserve better.

This cognitive distortion, I believe, may be at the root of the Jewish people’s misguided and destructive behavior after the Exodus from Egypt. But first, a little empathy.

Put Yourself in Their Sandals

For centuries, the Jews had endured slavery, oppression and genocide. Those who survived the plagues (sadly, many Jews did not want to leave Egypt and died during the Plague of Darkness) also survived the precipitous leaving of Egypt, which was no mean feat. Within a few days, they were traumatized in thinking they were about to be slaughtered at sea. And then the Jewish people experienced Divine Revelation, an event so shocking to the psyche that they momentarily died and had to be brought back to life.

Isn’t it understandable that after all of that they might have felt they deserved a break, a little free sailing? Having paid dues of such a magnitude, weren’t they entitled to wanting to “have it all?” And if so, could that not explain the petulant griping, kvetching and outright rebellious behavior at every frustration and unexpected turn of events?

Expectations Are Frustrations Waiting to Happen

New beginnings are usually exhilarating, euphoric even, filled with rosy expectations of promises to be fulfilled and a perfect future. When reality hits—as it inevitably does—it can cause anger and resentment. What do you mean I may be thirsty, I may be hungry, I’m going to wander here for how many years exactly? And all I have to eat is manna, so on top of everything else, I have to be a vegan?

Despite Egypt’s horrific conditions, the people knew what the next day—and the day after that—would bring. It was a certainty; whereas now, nothing was familiar, and the future was unsure. And they didn't take it well. Perhaps they expected G‑d to be a replacement for Pharaoh (albeit a lot nicer), but the demand or expectation of guarantees and certainty is just another form of slavery. They didn’t yet understand freedom.

How About Us?

When we expect our relationship with G‑d to be transactional, when we view G‑d as a cosmic bellhop paying a quid pro quo for our “virtuous” behavior, then neither do we.

Ah, the Bliss Stage

I remember the joy as well as the turmoil and the cost of becoming observant. The cost was literal, in that I sold a house I had wanted to live in for the rest of my life at a significant loss to move to a religious community. And the cost was emotional, as I had a lot of relationships to navigate and much baggage to unpack. Dismantling a secular life to rebuild a new one was exciting, but also confusing and stressful.

But I was leaving Egypt, I thought, and I couldn’t wait to begin my perfect utopian life with my ideal community and my new best friend: G‑d.

Wait! What?

And then I suffered a series of misfortunate and disappointing events, some of which were inexplicably bizarre. And nothing was perfect or utopian—quite the opposite. After everything I had “given up,” after all the changes I had made for You, G‑d, this is what I get? Instead of “having it all,” in some ways, life only became more problematic.

And I flipped out a little bit because that wasn’t the deal in my mind. I didn’t want freedom; I wanted a transaction. I more than put up my half of the bargain. Where was my new Best Friend now?

The Soul’s Bargain

Being transactional works for the business and the material world. However, when it comes to relationships, emotions and the spiritual life, you can’t bargain your way to love, happiness and meaning. As one of my favorite writers, Mark Manson, puts it: “The most precious and important things in life cannot be bargained with. To try to do so destroys them.”

So how do we navigate our challenges in a non-transactional way?

The Tanya begins byquoting a Mishna in the Talmud that before a soul incarnates, it takes an oath to pursue righteousness and avoid wickedness. So when you do something good for its own sake—simply because it’s the right thing, regardless of whether it’s reciprocated, appreciated or even valued—you are just keeping your word. Sometimes, it’s effortless; other times, it takes more than we think we can bear.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, wrote:

Faith is not certainty. Faith is the courage to live with uncertainty. Almost every phase of the exodus was fraught with difficulties, real or imagined. That is what makes the Torah so powerful. It does not pretend that life is any easier than it is. The road is not straight, and the journey is long. Unexpected things happen. Crises suddenly appear. It becomes important to embed in a people’s memory the knowledge that we can handle the unknown. G‑d is with us, giving us the courage we need.

The Resilient Quest

Maria Sirois, whose work is to guide people through the quest for resilience, teaches that we get courage by “courage-ing”—that resilience isn’t something you figure out and then plug it in. It’s a quest that requires us to journey again and again into the unknown and uncertain.

And the mindset that best equips us for that journey is to realize that we do have it all, once we define “all” as simply being that which is. “Having it all” is not pining for some fantasy of a perfect life, but owning and appreciating the lives that we have in the full totality of everything that is.

We have all experienced losses in life that can break us, especially when we feel we deserve so much better. Sooner or later, we all face the vast and boundless desert, with no easy answer on the horizon. We can resist, and become bitter and resentful. Or we can embrace it “all,” expand our consciousness and compassion, and know that there is always a perfect harmony—a perfect balance to be had when we have faith, keep our word and dare to face “what is” with courage.