Friday, September 7, 2012

Simcha: The Art of Joyous Living

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Nechama Leibowitz was fond of teaching her students to find the "milah mancha" – a shoresh (root noun or verb), word or phrase that appears numerous times in a given section.

In Parshat Ki Tavo, a surprising "milah mancha" is the root of the word "simcha," meaning joy. While the word only appears in three contexts, each instance brings its own set of immeasurable valuable lessons.

The first reference to joy comes in the context of bringing the first fruits. After placing the basket on the floor of the Mishkan, having said one's declaration of gratitude, the Torah says "You will rejoice in all the bounty that God has given you, along with the Levite and the 'ger' who lives amongst you." (26:11) The joy here comes from a recognition that the gifts we enjoy come from God.

The second mention of joy alerts the people of a time in the hopefully not-too-distant future when they will gather at Mount Eival after having crossed into the land of Canaan. Moshe instructs them as to how they will construct a Mizbeach (an altar) out of uncut stones and bring sacrifices upon it. They will also take very large stones, coat them with limestone and write the words of the Torah upon them - which they will read, and which will serve as a reminder to them of their relationship with God. In the midst of all the festivities, "You will bring peace offerings there and you will rejoice before your God." (27:7) The joy will come from a feeling of closeness to God, because we are in the land He promised, and we are seeing the circle of the Redemption from Egypt coming to a close.

The third time we see the word "simcha" is in the Tokhacha (Rebuke), when the people are told that all the curses will come upon you "because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and a merry heart on account of having plenty of everything." (28:47) This notion would seem to be a reference to the concern voiced in Devarim 8:14-20 when Moshe warns of what will happen when things are going well for you and "your heart becomes elevated, and you forget God who took you out of Egypt… [to the point that] you'll say in your heart, 'It was my own strength and fortitude that got me here.'"

It seems the Torah is suggesting that for some people money can buy happiness. But the idea that the money causes people to forget God, and consequently not to serve God with joy, is one of the ingredients that will bring about the curses of the Rebuke.

Living life with joy, and rejoicing with God, seems to be an easy antidote to life's ills and pitfalls. For some people, living life with joy is much easier said than done. There are everyday pressures from bosses, children, spouses. There are bills to pay. There is the ever-present concern of "Am I doing right in how I am raising my children?" It's hard to live in the moment and to simply be happy.

Those who follow the teaching of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov that "it is a great mitzvah to be happy," have a built in reminder that as much as everything weighs on the shoulders, there is a higher calling. We can look at all the blessings we have and be reminded that life is good.

I like to think the Tokhacha has been visited upon the Jewish people enough times. I like to believe that the warnings are a remnant of a time that was, and that they need not happen again. Less than 70 years after the Holocaust, however, there are still survivors and certainly many children of survivors who know that the Tokhacha was fulfilled yet again during that period of very recent history. And I am certainly not suggesting that I understand the ways of God as to why it had to happen. Giving reasons for the Holocaust is at the least insulting to all its victims and smacks of pure ignorance.

But the Torah explains why the curses of the Tokhacha would be visited upon the Jewish people, and it tacks in the message of not serving God with joy.

We need to find joy in everything we do. We need to rise above the mundane and the day-to-day concerns that pull us down and prevent us from feeling joy.

Bringing the first fruit was a reminder that, despite everything that might be difficult, there is bounty in your life. Tap into it, know where it comes from (hint: God), appreciate it, and rejoice with it.

The celebration at Mt. Eival, which is recounted in Yehoshua Chapter 8, was a reminder that God fulfills His promises – even though the fulfillment of the promises sometimes comes to a different generation. There is merit to serving God, to fostering the man-God relationship and rejoicing in the gift that from being God's People.

We build the relationship through our time commitments, our monetary commitments, and through our life choices. We pray, we learn, we act, we serve, we fulfill commandments, and many are committed to growing in observance, in learning, and in each person's closer feelings for God.

If we smile more, and rejoice more in our service and dedication to God, who knows what can happen? Maybe the Messiah will come. And maybe we'll become a light unto others as we are "motzim chen b'einei Elokim v'adam" – finding favor in the eyes of God and Mankind.

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