It’s a Great Mitzvah to be Happy Always – Re’eh 5778

Since 2012, the United Nations has conducted an annual World Happiness Report.  It ranks 156 countries by the collective happiness of their populations using weighted metrics derived from per capita GDP, degree of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption.  According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, America ranked 18th in the world, but we have been on a downward trajectory over the past decade.  Israel was 11th, if one can measure such a thing.

Of course, this has nothing to do with happiness as each of us experiences it individually.

Am I happy?

How do I get it?  And what is it?  Perhaps it is a chemical release that we can measure through neurobiology.  Maybe it is a feeling of purpose in life, or the awareness of being wanted.  Perhaps happiness is something we experience when we indulge our appetites.

One of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, is simchah – happiness, or joy.  The Hebrew root sin, mem, chet occurs exactly one time each in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  It appears twelve times in the Book of Deuteronomy.  Seven are in Parashat Re’eh.

All seven occurrences contain similar elements.  The Israelites are told to rejoice when they bring various kinds of voluntary and mandatory offerings to the Temple.

Here is one example, describing the observance of the holiday of Shavuot:

V’samachta lifnei Adonai Elohekha… You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.  (Deuteronomy 16:11)

You, or rather, the Israelite, must gather together with all of the members of his household: his wife, children, and servants.  Plus, he invites the poor and dispossessed to join with him.  They are all to assemble “at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name,” that is to say, the Temple in Jerusalem.  There, they are to bring a freewill offering from the recent harvest, as an observance of Shavuot.

Note that it is not God who is doing the rejoicing.  It’s people – us.  This is not the case in other books of the Torah, which emphasize the burning up of meat to send up a pleasing odor to the Lord.  In Deuteronomy, we worship God by celebrating together and creating a mood of festivity among ourselves.  When Israelites brought one of these offerings, they did so as an acknowledgement and expression of thanks for the blessings that had been provided by God. 

The parashah implies that the recipe for true simchah requires several things: for us to be together, for us to share our bounty with the poor, for us to eat and drink, and for us to acknowledge that any blessings we get to enjoy in this world are ultimately gifts from God, and not merely the products of our own efforts.

Finally, by emphasizing that all of this must take place in the Sanctuary, and on specific occasions, the Torah channels our expressions of joy into sacred contexts.  After all, there can be danger in unbounded releases of happiness.  Parties can get out of hand.

Does the destruction of the Temple and the ending of sacrifices mean that we no longer worship God with simchah? 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, placed a great emphasis on the idea of simchah as the central component of Judaism.  He offered an alternative approach to Jewish life, which in his day was so focused on intellectual achievement that it had lost the essence of what it meant to be Jewish.

All joy, even its lowest forms, originates in holiness and is a gift from God.  The Baal Shem Tov especially liked the following story from the Talmud.

Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah used to frequent the market at Lapat where Elijah [the Prophet] often appeared to him. Once he asked [the prophet], “Is there anyone in this market who has a share in the world to come?”

[Elijah] replied, “No…” While [they were thus conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two have a share in the world to come.”

Rabbi Beroka then approached [the two men] and asked them, “What is your occupation?”

They replied, “We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarrelling we strive hard to make peace between them.”  (BT Ta’anit 22a)

One would imagine that the marketplace of a major Persian city would be filled with worthy people.  Scholars, merchants, philanthropists, civic leaders – many passersby who should merit a place the world to come.  Yet the only people worthy enough are the jesters.

The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov constantly strove to find ways to serve God with simchah.  Of his many beloved stories and teachings, the most well-known is: mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”  (Likutei Moharan, II 24)

It sounds nice, and makes for nice lyrics to a niggun, but it is kind of a strange thing to say.  We usually think of happiness as something which we strive to achieve.  But a mitzvah?!  A commandments?!  Perhaps we might suggest that a life lived according to the Torah can lead a person to happiness.  But to suggest that there is a requirement to be happy seems unrealistic.

And even more far-fetched is the notion of tamid, always.  Can anyone achieve a constant state of happiness.  And if so, could the rest of us stand to be around such a person?

Rebbe Nachman knew this well.  He personally suffered from severe mood swings and depression.  He lost two children, and his wife died when he was thirty five.  He remarried almost immediately, contracted tuberculosis, and died at the age of thirty eight.  So what does Rebbe Nahman mean when he talks about simchah?

He teaches that it is in a person’s nature to be drawn to marah shechorah, black bitterness, and atzvut, sadness, from the travails of life.  We all suffers afflictions.  It would seem to demand all of our efforts to achieve a constant state of joy.  

Every one of us has a lev nishbar, Rebbe Nachman continues, a broken heart.  This broken heart is not something to suppress, nor is it something to wallow in, as that can lead us further down the path of black bitterness.  He advises instead that we should dedicate a fixed time each day during which to break our hearts and engage in honest conversation with God.  Then, we can be freed up to experience joy.

Indeed, Rebbe Nachman did this.  We have preserved many of Rebbe Nachman’s own spontaneous prayers that he recited in his daily conversations – or battles, as he described them – with God.  Embrace the brokenness and sadness, and then be freed up for joy.

Rebbe Nachman advised his chasidim to sing, and to dance.  He encouraged silliness, and lightheartedness.  “Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks,” he taught.  “If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.”  (Advice, Breslov Research Institute. p. 254)  Rebbe Nachman fervently believed that our spiritual joy could make an impact in the real world.

Shortly before Purim in 1803, Rebbe Nachman arrived in the town of Terhovitza, in Ukraine, for his annual visit.  (Likutey Moharan, Volume II, #10, p. 115) Czar Alexander I had recently issued an ukase, a decree instructing the issuance of “Enactments Concerning the Jews.”  This would eventually lead to laws for mandatory conscription and compulsory secular education.

Rebbe Nachman introduced one of his teachings by stating: “When, God forbid, there are decrees affecting the Jewish people, through dancing and hand-clapping these decrees can be mitigated.”

After he completed the lengthy and intricate lesson, Rebbe Nachman remarked: “This is what I said!  We are hearing news of decrees against the Jews.  But the days of Purim are near and Jews will dance and clap, and thereby mitigate the decree!”

At the Purim festivities that year, Rebbe Nachman danced even more fervently than usual.  “I have delayed the decrees for twenty-odd years,” he reflected afterward.

The decrees did not come until almost twenty five years later, in 1827, sixteen years after Rebbe Nachman’s death.

I don’t know if we have come any closer to defining simchah, but Parashat Re’eh and Rebbe Nachman offer paths to achieving it.  In the Torah, Simchah is experienced when we join with other people, including those without the means, to express gratitude for the gifts we have been given.  Spiritual simchah, expressed at holy moments and locations, is worship of God.

For Rebbe Nachman, it is the highest form of worship.  And even though life is difficult, unfair, and filled with sadness; and even though some people’s physical and psychological burdens seem to far exceed those of others, our ultimate task in life is to cultivate a state of constant joy.  This can only be done by acknowledging the sadness.  Maybe it is the black bitterness itself that makes true simchah possible.

Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simchah tamid.  “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”

Bereishit 5777 – The Four Sins of Bereishit and the Expansion of the Human Ego

I have been feeling a bit addicted to technology lately, so I resolved to do something that I have not done in about two decades.  I wrote a sermon completely by hand, without using anything whatsoever with a screen for ideas or research.  I scanned it and am sharing the results below (I get the irony).  Sorry if you can’t read my handwriting.
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It’s Impossible To Be Present Through A Lens – Ki Tissa 5775

I love going into the Nursery School.  It is always such a breath of fresh air.  These little human beings express themselves so honestly, without the inhibitions which they will acquire soon enough.

Every year, the nursery school celebrates the morning of Purim, and I get to join them for a visit.  I usually tell them the abridged story of the Megillah, and then join them in a Purim parade.  Loads of fun.

By the time I got to them this week though, they were out of control.  I walked into the social hall and they all jumped up and swarmed around me, announcing themselves and their costumes.

“Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m a firefighter.  I’m a princess.  I’m Darth Vader!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!  I’m Batman!  I’m Elsa!”  There were a lot of Elsa’s and Batman’s this year.

I was really struck by their desire to be seen and recognized.  It was contagious.  Once one of them announced herself, the rest soon followed, and I was soon surrounded by a gaggle of screaming preschoolers.

In just a few years, they will not be shouting out “Look at me!  I’m Elsa!”  But that innate need to be acknowledged will not go away.  These kids will find other ways to call out for recognition, some constructive, some destructive.

It is a core human trait.  We want to know that we matter.  We want assurance that the people in our lives see us.  In religious terms, we want to know that God cares about us.

The Israelites want the same thing.  They want to know that they matter.  They want to know that Moses, their leader, sees them, and is not going to abandon them.  They want to know that God is with them.

As this morning’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, opens, Moses has been up on Mt. Sinai for approximately forty days – depending on who is counting.  The children of Israel, encamped at the bottom, have been waiting patiently for their leader to finish talking to God, come back to them, and tell them what to do next.

But something goes wrong.  Day follows day.  Week follows week.  Still no Moses.  The people grow impatient.  Rashi explains that when Moses told the Israelites that he would be gone for forty days, he meant that they should start counting that night.  But the Israelites started counting right away, and so they were a day off.

In any event, the Israelites gather in front Aaron and ask him to make them a god to go before them, because “that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him.”  (Exodus 32:1)

Aaron gathers gold, melts it, and casts it into a mold, producing a golden calf.  The people, overjoyed, announce “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) and then plan a celebration for the next day.

This episode, the Sin of the Golden Calf, is usually depicted as one of the worst catastrophes in the Torah.  Right after leaving Egypt amidst signs and wonders and receiving the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, the Israelites have already violated the fundamental mitzvah of not worshipping idols.

But let’s think about it from their perspective for a moment.  The Israelites do not know where they stand.  Moses is gone.  He had been unclear about precisely how long he would be away.  When he does not show up after the allotted time has passed, the Israelites feel abandoned.

And God?  God is terrifying.  Brings plagues, splits seas, and drowns armies.  Creates earthquakes and thunderstorms.  Invisible.

So it is understandable that the Israelites are feeling a bit lost by now.  They want something tangible that they can see and interact with to lead them on in their journey.  They want to know that they matter, and that they have not been forgotten and abandoned in this wasteland.

What better thing to reassure them than a shiny gold cute little baby cow.  Remember what they say after it comes out of the fire: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  They are not worshipping another god.  To the Israelites, this is the Lord and Moses all rolled up into one.

But God is not sympathetic to the Israelites’ fears.  For making a statue, God wants to destroy them in an instant.  Moses talks God down, and then hurries to see what is going on.

Moses’ reaction to the Israelites seems almost feigned.  He already knows what they have done and has even spoken up on their behalf.  He waits until he is actually within sight of the Golden Calf before he turns on the anger and shatters the Tablets of the Covenant.

Perhaps Moses recognizes what the Israelites are going through at that moment.  Consider what he says to God afterwards when God threatens to wipe out all of the Israelites and start over with Moses.  Moses refuses point blank, instead delivering God an ultimatum:  “If you don’t forgive them, then You can erase me from Your book!”  Why would Moses go to bat for these people unless he empathizes with them?

What God does not seem to understand yet is that the Israelites are emotionally fragile.  They really do need to be reassured.  Moses gets it.  He understands that, as a Prophet, the intermediary between the Israelites and the Lord, it is up to him to teach God how to relate to the people.

After a bit of negotiating, Moses makes two important requests.  One, he asks God to reveal God’s self to Moses.  Moses wants to have a better understanding of with Whom he is dealing.  The second request is on behalf of the people.  “Unless You go in the lead,” Moses instructs God, “do not make us leave this place.”  (Exodus 33:15)  Moses knows that the Israelites need more recognition than God has given them so far.

God, scolded, agrees to both of Moses’ demands.

While no human can be exposed to God’s Presence and survive, God makes an accommodation.  God summons Moses up to Mt. Sinai once again, and instructs him to hide in the cleft of a rock.  The Divine Glory passes by, and Moses is able to see God’s back (whatever that means).

From then on, the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, travels with the Israelites through the wilderness as a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.

Thanks to Moses’ insight and boldness, the Israelites finally have the reassurance they seek.  They know that God is with them, because they see signs of God’s Presence.  They know that God speaks to their leader, Moses, on a regular basis, because Moses himself has been permanently changed by the experience.  Plus, God’s Presence descends upon the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses goes inside to commune.

In our world that is full of distractions, it can be difficult to be fully present.  Gone are the times when families and friends would have to talk with one another because there was literally nothing else to do.

Nowadays, we are surrounded by electronic devices, guaranteeing that we are never bored, and offering us excuses so that we never have to be fully present with another person.

But the need to be seen and acknowledged is buried deep inside of us.  It is a need that is not replaced by technology.  Indeed, technology provides a lot of distractions that interfere with our ability to see one another and to interact with the world.

As I prepare to depart with my family on my sabbatical in a little over a week, I have been thinking a lot about a particular electronic device which I expect will feature prominently in my experiences – a camera.  Nowadays, pretty much everybody has a camera in their pockets at all times.  We have the ability to record every moment of our lives – in high definition.

Think back to a vacation you once took.  Try and remember what happened.  The people you were with.  The sites you visited.  If you are like me, you have photographs of most of those memories.  It is because the photograph itself reinforces the experience.  We are far less likely to remember vacation experiences for which we do not have the pictures.

Why is that?  Is it that those experiences are less real, or less significant?

Not at all.  Cameras have changed our brains.  They have altered the ways that we store memories.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am a camera person.  I like to take pictures.  I think I have taken some pretty good ones.  The most practical class I took in high school was photography.

But for me, a camera often interferes with the experience itself.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be fully present through a camera lens.

I suppose that for some really talented photographers, a camera can actually become an extension of oneself.  When such an artist looks through the lens, he or she is indeed fully present with the subject.

But when I look through the lens, I am thinking about other things:  Do I have enough light?  What image do I want to focus on?  How much do I want to zoom in.  Is my subject backlit, or washed out?  The camera then becomes a barrier to being fully present and in the moment.

This is true if I am out in nature somewhere, looking out at a gorgeous valley.  It’s also true when I am with my kids.  I can interact with them, roll around on the floor, cheer them on at a sports game.  Or I can create a permanent record and view the experience through a glass lens.

While the camera may create a lasting image, it often comes at the forfeiture of genuine experience.

As I prepare to live in Israel for the next four months, I expect to take a lot of pictures.  But I also am reminding myself that the experiences that really matter in life are the ones in which we are fully present with our environment, and the people in it.

Judaism offers us many opportunities to be Present.  Right now, we are here together celebrating Shabbat.  One of the blessings of Shabbat is that it forces us to pay attention to one another.  To be Present, in this moment, and to not let the distractions of the week get in the way of our relationships.

Because whether it is Nursery School students clamoring for the Rabbi to acknowledge them in their Purim costumes, Israelites longing for a sign of God’s Presence to reassure them that they have not been abandoned, or our own quests for meaning in life, we human beings are hard-wired to seek opportunities to be Present.

It is those intangible moments when we truly connect with the essence of the other which matter most.  May we have the courage, and the privilege to see and be seen clearly.