Looking on the Bright Side
Looking on the Bright Side
Sometimes, I feel that a lot of people—including some Jews themselves—see Jews as a collective Eeyore. Take this quotation from A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh:
"Eeyore," said Owl, "Christopher Robin is giving a party." "Very interesting," said Eeyore. "I suppose they will be sending me down the odd bits which got trodden on. Kind and Thoughtful. Not at all, don't mention it."
That’s us: trodden on, perpetually melancholy, laden with thousands of years of oppression, exile, pogroms, and genocide. Always letting out a big sigh. This year at Passover, supposedly our season of celebration at redemption, comedian Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show that the scene-setter for our seder meal includes dips of salt water, bitter lettuce, horseradish, and matzah—not exactly a boffo sales pitch for the Tribe.
Even this week’s Torah portion, R’eih, opens by tempering the sweetness of the Promised Land with a lot of bitterness, as God commands the Israelites to immediately climb its hills and “pronounce the blessing at Mount Gerizim and the curse at Mount Ebal” (Deuteronomy 11:29). Not for one moment can we just be happy, can we?
Or can we?
Tucked away toward the back of the parashah, between the requirements of tithing and the rules of the Festival calendar, the Torah gives us this gift:
“You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of the Eternal your God, in the place where [God] will choose to establish the divine name, so that you may learn to revere the Eternal your God forever. Should the distance be too great for you, should you be unable to transport them, because the place where the Eternal your God has chosen to establish the divine name is far from you and because the Eternal your God has blessed you, you may convert them into money. Wrap up the money and take it with you to the place that the Eternal your God has chosen, and spend the money on anything you want—cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of the Eternal your God, and rejoice with your household” (Deuteronomy 14:23-26).
There’s no downside here, no curse to this blessing. There’s no big “but” coming, only the mitzvah of taking care of the Levites, the strangers, the orphans, and the widows who are our neighbors, so that they can be happy too.
Here, just for this brief moment, reverence for God, yirat Adonai, is equated with lightness of heart, happiness, and celebration, not with the burdens of obligation. Here, in the middle of a Torah portion replete with such obligations, we are reminded that it is also a mitzvah to celebrate being Jewish and to share that joy, both with those we love and with those who need joy brought into their lives. For as Rabbi Simhah Bunim of Pshischa taught, learning to revere God “is a cardinal principle in improving oneself . . . a realization that the entire world is filled with His glory and that every single creature contains a spark of the Divine.”1
It is not accidental, I think, that this command to celebrate with one’s family and neighbors comes just before the remission of debts every seventh year, releasing Israelites from potential perpetual servitude. In Hebrew, we call this s’muchin, the juxtaposition of two concepts in the Torah by their proximity to each other. Perhaps in days gone by it would have made sense to connect the Sabbatical year release of debts with the tithes taken to the Temple, since both speak of regular obligations. But in our own time, with no Temple and no tithes, I’d suggest it makes more sense to connect it to these verses that speak of occasions to celebrate freedom.
In recent times, some Jews once again have become circumspect in their celebration of faith, as they see anti-Semitism reappearing throughout the world, often in the guise of anti-Zionism. One can understand the Eeyore-like response to these threats, and to the violence and even death that sometimes have followed. Yet if we learn anything from this view of our parashah, it is that in a world without Temple, priests, and tithes, it is our joy in Judaism—and not our submission to rules and routines—that has sustained us through the centuries.
This is not limited to Festivals and holy days. Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah2 wrote:
“Anyone who derives benefit [from this world] without reciting a blessing is considered as if he misappropriated a sacred article. . . . Just as we recite blessings for benefit which we derive from the world, we should also recite blessings for each mitzvah before we fulfill it. Similarly, the Sages instituted many blessings as expressions of praise and thanks to God and as a means of petition, so that we will always remember the Creator. . .”
I think of these not only as blessings we recite, but also as blessings we encounter in everyday life. Think of each day as a day when—despite the obligations, perceived slights, and missteps that burden us—we can find something for which to say, in the words of the Psalmist, “This is the day that the Lord has made—let us exult and rejoice on it.”
Man simply cannot live by fear alone. Neither can a people be sustained.
- Rabbi Simhah was a leader of Poland’s Chasidic community in the late 18th and early 19th century. See Aharon Ya’akov Greenberg, comp., Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein, trans., Torah Gems, Vol. III Bamidbar/Devarim (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1998), p. 240
- Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, excerpted from Sefer Ahavah, Hilchot B’rachot 1:2-3
Rabbi Audrey R. Korotkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. candidate in rabbinics at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, from which she was ordained in 1999.
I know, I know. It can seem like we’re a depressed people, always focusing on the negative. You know what they say about every Jewish holiday: “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!”
But it’s not really that way. We actually have to be reminded to be sad!
The Mishnah, a second-century code of Jewish law, teaches, mi shenichnas Av, mima-atin b’simchah, “When the Hebrew month of Av arrives, we should reduce our joy.” We have to be reminded to reduce our joy as the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem approaches, on the Ninth of Av.
In a corresponding text in the Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 29a, we have, mi shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simchah, “When the Jewish month of Adar comes [as Purim and Passover approach] our joy increases.
Both of these texts assume that we start from a place of joy; one referencing Adar in the springtime, calls upon us to get even more joyous. The other, referencing Av in the summer, calls us to temper our joy.
On the Festival of Sukkot, in the fall, we sing a song with words from the Book of Deuteronomy 16:14-15, V’samachta b’chagecha . . . v’hayita ach samei-ach. “Rejoice in your festivals . . . and be only happy.”
And in the wintertime, we’re taught once again to increase our joy. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai debate in what fashion we should light each successive Hanukkah candle (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b). Shammai argues, logically, that we should start with eight candles on the first night, then reduce the light each night, just as the oil in that very first Hanukkah menorah diminished with each passing day. Hillel, on the other hand, argues that we should start with one light, and add one more each day. On what basis does Hillel make this argument? Marbim b’simchah, he says. We should only increase our joy.
In the spring, summer, fall, and winter, we rejoice.
Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves as the rabbi of Beth Haverim Shir Shalom in Mahwah, New Jersey.
R'eih, Deuteronomy 11:26–16:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,417–1,450; Revised Edition, pp. 1,255–1,289;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,115–1,140