The notion of being content with what we possess often serves as a counterpoint to situations that deviate from our expectations. Although we may not always be thrilled about our current circumstances, a sense of gratitude urges us to find satisfaction. This perspective encourages us to resist comparisons and the pursuit of something better. Instead, it emphasizes the importance of finding happiness in our present state.
While intellectually, we may comprehend the letter of this concept, its spirit sometimes eludes us. Stories circulate about legendary figures, like the pauper on the outskirts of town, who selflessly offers his last piece of bread to a weary traveler. Yet, we wonder whether such examples extend beyond the hagiographies of revered figures like rabbis and saints.
The idea of contentment finds notable expression in Ethics of Our Fathers, specifically in Pirkie Avot 4:1, where it is stated:
“Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.”
However, where we can find an embodiment of this principle?
Interestingly, we can draw insight from the Shabbat morning Amidah, the silent prayer. But before delving into this, let’s establish some context. The weekday Amidah comprises three sections: Praise, Petition, and Thanksgiving. On Shabbat, the middle section — Petition — is replaced with paragraphs focused on Shabbat itself. This substitution carries significance. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik places petition and supplication, essentially asking for things, at the heart of the Jewish prayer experience (see “Worship of the Heart: Essays on Jewish Prayer”).
Further strengthening this point, Maimonides, in his seminal work Mishneh Torah, declares that “It is forbidden to fast, cry out, supplicate, or request mercy on Shabbat” (Mishneh Torah, Sabbath 30:7–12).
What intrinsic quality of Shabbat dictates that we refrain from asking, even during our private and silent prayers?
Perhaps a parallel can be drawn from the story of manna — the heaven-sent sustenance for the Israelites during their desert journey.
In Exodus 16, we learn that the Israelites would collect their daily manna, but on Fridays, they would gather a double portion — one for Friday and another for Saturday, Shabbat. The heavens would not provide a fresh daily portion on Shabbat.
Moses elucidates the reason behind the absence of manna on Shabbat:
“And he said to them, ‘This is what the LORD has said: Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” (Exodus 16:23)
Yet, Exodus 16:27 narrates how some individuals couldn’t resist the urge to check for manna on Shabbat:
“But on the seventh day, some of the people went out to gather, and they found none.”
This impulse to check, even when told there would be nothing, is profoundly relatable. Why not take a peek? After all, there’s no harm in confirming. If they do find something, it’s a win!
Returning to the initial question — where do we find a model for genuine contentment with what we have?
One suggestion is to search within the Shabbat morning silent prayer. Armed with an understanding of prayer structure and the biblical experience of Shabbat, let’s examine this idea more closely.
As previously noted, on Shabbat morning, the Amidah exchanges the petition section for paragraphs extolling the sanctity of Shabbat. The first paragraph in this section begins with:
יִשמַח משֶׁה בְּמַתְּנַת חֶלְקו
“Moses rejoiced in the gift of his lot.”
At first glance, this choice might seem odd. What does Moses’ rejoicing in his lot have to do with Shabbat?
Moses is the most revered figure in Judaism — an unparalleled teacher, a prophet who communed directly with the Divine, and the conduit for the Torah. One might assume he should inherently be content with his lot. But how does this relate to Shabbat? Why not begin with the creation story or the Ten Commandments?
Let’s consider that Moses’ journey was not devoid of challenges. Abandoned in infancy, raised in the household of his future adversary, and burdened with a speech impediment, Moses led a people often unappreciative of his guidance. Moreover, he did not fulfill his destiny of leading the Israelites to the Promised Land.
The siddur, however, tells us that Moses rejoiced in the gift of his lot. Why? Because God called him a “trusted servant.” Despite his difficulties, Moses found joy in faithfully serving both the Divine and his community.
Moses serves as the epitome of contentment. He demonstrated what it truly means to be content with what we possess. Just as he collected the double portion of manna on Friday and refrained from going back out on Saturday, Moses trusted the system and served with unwavering faith.
Shabbat morning, a time devoid of personal requests, serves as a reminder of Moses’ example of not yearning for more. It teaches us to find happiness in the present, being content with what we have. Like Moses, we recognize that we were given a double portion yesterday, and today, we trust the system. While tomorrow might bring new needs, for now, we pause and rejoice in the gift of the present.