Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yom Kippur 5767 - What is this sin thing anyway?

As I mentioned last week, one of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not written in the Torah but in the Talmud, in Rosh Hashanah 16b:

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life. The thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death. The doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.

Thus it is Yom Kippur that is our last chance according to this passage of Gemara. The Mishnah also mentions some of the power of the Day of Atonement

Mishnah. The sin-offering and the guilt-offering [for the] undoubted commission of certain offences procure atonement, death and the Day of Atonement procure atonement together with penitence. Penitence procures atonement for lighter transgressions: [the transgression of] positive commandments and prohibitions. In the case of severer transgressions it [penitence] suspends [the divine punishment], until the Day of Atonement comes to procure atonement. [Yoma 85b]

Yet the text goes further, saying this isn’t a free ride. The Mishnah continues:

If one says: ‘I shall sin and repent, sin and repent’, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If one says]: ‘I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me’, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement. [Yoma 85b]

And the Gemara interestingly continues:

Why is it necessary to state I SHALL SIN AND I SHALL REPENT twice? — That is in accord with what R. Huna said in the name of Rab; for R. Huna said in the name of Rab: Once a man has committed a transgression once or twice, it becomes permitted to him. ‘It is permitted!? How could that come into your mind? — Rather, it appears to him like something permitted. [Yoma 87a]

This Gemara makes a very interesting statement about habit. After transgressing multiple times, the transgression becomes habit, and appears as if it is a permitted act, even when it isn’t. In my case, I am transgressing the milk and meat prohibition by having a piece of cheesecake after a grilled chicken breast. Although there is minority opinion of R. Jose the Galilean that this is permitted, for the majority it is not. For me, this prohibition has actually become practice.

In non-Orthodoxy, we find many of these types of issues. Driving on the Sabbath to synagogue would be another of such issues, or my late lighting of my Shabbat candles or a dozen other things. Many times, like my Shabbat candle practice of lighting somewhere around 10:00PM, since I’m neither home to light them earlier and too cautious of the fire hazard if I did, what is really a transgression has become spiritual practice. It thus makes it difficult to tell what really are our sins and what are not our sins given modern practices. And while it seems that Orthodoxy might have it easier here, Orthodoxy just gets more sensitive and detail oriented. It’s not the chicken and cheese that is the issue, but opening the refrigerator on Shabbat when the compressor is off -- and thus causing the thermostat to turn on, which causes a spark which is considered a prohibited fire. One can go nuts thinking about this stuff if we try to base everything on a halakaic standard, yet some try to do their best under these conditions.

Others might define sin by its human standard - that I hurt some other person, either physically or with Lashon Hara. The rabbis handle this issue too, and Yom Kippur isn’t much help here:

For transgressions as between man and the Omnipresent the Day of Atonement procures atonement, but for transgressions as between man and his fellow the Day of Atonement does not procure any atonement, until he has pacified his fellow. [Yoma 85b]

In short, the only one who can do the job in matters of people hurting people is people. One needs to get forgiveness from the person. This is also problematic for me, since many times I don’t even know I hurt someone in the first place, so I can’t even apologize. I’m sure there are times where I have inadvertently offended while giving a D’var Torah, making a speech or of course in my comments here in Shlomo’s Drash. Then there are the times where an apology may cause more harm than good -- the visual sight of the person giving the apology is enough to cause resentment and make the situation worse. There is story about a rabbi named Hanina who held a grudge against another Rabbi named Rab because he would not start a lesson from the beginning when he walked in late. As much as Rab would try to apologize on the Day of Atonement, he failed thirteen times, because R. Hanina would remember the slight and be offended again. Hanina eventually forced Rab to Leave Israel for Persia. [Yoma 87b]

In short, trying to do repentance to all this stuff is not easy, yet there is a way. We find in the Tanach a formula mentioned several times when someone is looking for forgiveness from God:

5. (K) We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly and have rebelled, and have departed from your precepts and from your judgments; [Daniel 5:9]

Besides this verse from Daniel, where the confession is applied, the books of Samuel, Kings, Psalms, and Chronicles has a similar formula, asking for forgiveness of God. While not in the same order, even to those who know no Hebrew some of the words might sound familiar: Chatanu, Avinu, Hirshanu, and Maradnu. Later generations found 22 versions of sins and put them in alphabetical order to come up with the Ashamnu beginning of the public confessional, said multiple times during the Yom Kippur service. Following that is of course the 40- verse confessional Al Cheit. Both of these confessionals are rather non specific on the sins involved, keeping to the general or even outright vague.

And the key to that vagueness, and its purpose, sounds to English ears like mere poetic rhyme. Yet, it is a serious grammar point in Hebrew. In Hebrew the nu ending means we. And interestingly, the only person in Hebrew grammar which does not have a gender is the first person. ‘We’ means everyone, regardless of gender. ‘We’ is the ultimate collective, completely unjudgemental of the individual. Individuals cannot know all of their own sins that need forgiveness. But as a collective we are more likely than not to have transgressed everything. To handle the unknown sin we say together “Chatanu, we have sinned.” While some might like to think one person or another it applies to, at that point in the service we are no longer individuals, we are a congregation and such thoughts are meaningless. When we traditionally beat our heart, we beat the heart of our entire community to change and repent sixty two times.

The Netana Tokef prayer states that prayer, charity and repentance turn the stern decree. That is based on teaching found in Midrash:

R. Judan said in R. Leazar's name: Three things nullify a decree [of evil], viz. prayer, righteousness, and repentance. And the three are enumerated in one verse: If My people, upon whom My Name is called, shall humble themselves, and pray (II Chron. VII, 14)-here you have prayer; And seek My face alludes to righteousness, as you read, I shall behold Thy face in righteousness (Ps. XVII, 15); And turn from their evil ways denotes repentance; after that, Then will I forgive their sin [Genesis Rabbah XLIV:12, Kohelet Rabbah V:4, VII:21]

All three of the requirements are mentioned, but even here they are mentioned as a collective 3rd person. It is not the individual, but the group which is important. In repentance, since the goat for Azazel, this had been the case, it has not been individual repentance, but collective repentance, because in a sense we are all guilty of something, and thus in a group we repent for all of our sins. The guy standing next to me might have been the guy who did something to me, yet I am repenting for both of us. We repent not just for ourselves but our neighbors as well, for we repent for what know we did and repent for what we didn’t know.

I still don’t have a clear idea of what is and is not sin. But I do remember that we all do sin, and together we all do repent as a community on Yom Kippur. With declining attendance even at High Holiday services, that of course is becoming less the case. And maybe that is the real sin.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Rosh Hashanah 5767 - The structure of fear

Once again Rosh Hashanah is upon us, 5767 begins, and it is time to think about our journey over the last year. One of the major themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not written in the Torah but in the Talmud, in Rosh Hashanah 16b:

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life. The thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death. The doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death.

Yet, as I have mentioned in previous Rosh Hashanah columns, I think in terms of Aggadah. Just as we will in a few weeks begin the Story of Torah, so too do we begin the Story of our lives over again on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I believe that this is a time of Story, we read the story of one of the most difficult decisions a father and son have to make, we read the story of a man who has a choice of saving an Enemy city or letting it fall to its destruction. Some choices are good, we read, some bad. But in all of those choices God is there with us, sometime guiding our hand subtly sometimes not.

Instead of a book of life or death I like to think that we all have our own book, the book of fully living. We either get a full chapter next year or we do not. Much of the setting and the rest of the characters come from the Scribe and Author. We are the protagonist and sometimes contributing author. We get the choices of making it a rich and vibrant colorful story full of joy and holiness and living to our best selves, or gray, drab and boring as we plod on with our lives, just waiting for the end of the book. It is traditional to say “May you be inscribed in the Good Book” at this time of year. I like to say instead “May you have another chapter in your Book of Fully Living.”

And like some old Journal, it’s a good time too look at what we did over the year. Talmud and tradition is to look at the bad things we do to turn ourselves away from them in the future, and ask forgiveness. Yet we also should look at what we did right as well, and make sure we do those too. We need to look at the whole story.

5766 was quite the year for story. I can think about it in terms of a Midrash from the book of Numbers.

And the people that dwells therein whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in (Num 18:18). How can you tell their strength? If they dwell in camps, they are strong, for they rely on their own strength. If they dwell in strongholds they are feeble and their hearts are timid. [Numbers R. XVI: 12]

Moses in instructing the spies what to look for and how to interpret said something rather profound. Those who are strong do not need a fortress; they have the strength to deal with the outside world. But it is the fearful who need the walls of the fortress for protection, since they really cannot defend themselves. So too with human beings. Fear is our defense, our fortification against a hostile world. Yet, like stone walls, it does other things as well. It substitutes for our own inner strength. The walls don’t just keep the bad guys out, but keeps us imprisoned within. We cannot see the good stuff out there in the world either; we stay in a siege mentality ever guarding the gates, and never growing and living.

We all have these walls and fortresses. This year however was my year for breaking down a lot of these walls. The isolation that I have suffered through had to go. A little over two years ago, on my 39th birthday, I realized that there was fear in me, and how much I was missing because of it. On a trip to Disney World, I realized that I really did fear many of the thrill rides. But in 5766, I got on many of them, whether I was afraid or not. And in almost every case, I found that it wasn’t as bad as I had expected, and indeed it was rather fun. The two water flumes and the one smaller rollercoaster I rode that trip was quite the revelation for me.

Then there was book I read on that same vacation. I’ve read it about four times now. Called The Game by Neil Strauss, it was the story of a New York Times and Rolling Stone reporter who infiltrates the world of the pick up artist. And reading this book I became fascinated by this world, not because I wanted to have a series of one night stands, but how Strauss, a geeky Jewish boy from Chicago, had some major walls protecting him, and still transformed into a pickup artist and charismatic personality. For most of the winter and spring, it was also fascinating to watch the world of shy and insecure men began to gravitate around this new guru as many in the on-line word begged and spent a ton of cash on getting all of his secrets and having his power and confidence around women. Given my own problems in getting dates, I, along with 2800 other men, even joined in Strauss' attempt to run a month long on-line workshop and get all of us date within a month.

I failed that challenge in July. Yet I failed for a rather interesting reason, one that I am rather proud of. While I learned a lot and improved many things about my self, including my grooming, confidence and dress, Strauss’ methodology was wrapped in Lashon Hara. Fundamental to the world of the pickup artist was the lie, sometime small but sometimes big. Often, it happens to merely get a laugh. The lies were to get past the defenses of the “target” the woman that a pickup artist wanted to sleep with for that night. As I wrote earlier this year, I entered this world, yet I found that it was a world too full of klippot for me. There were divine sparks there, but when the divine sparks were found, the world itself no longer held interest, it was all dark stuff. I still cannot do pickup routines, nor do I ever think I will be able to. They are also the ultimate lie, the lie to oneself. The lie that one is special and should be paid attention to because of learend scripts, not because of one’s unique Neshama. I went into this world, yet I walked out the other side a better person.

It also startled me how many would fall into this world, and how many are still very willing to do anything to get that knowledge. It also startled me how many failed, and their failure was given an interesting name: approach anxiety. Many of these men were no more than keyboard jockeys, unable to do anything but read e-books, type e-mails and e-messages on their keyboard. When it came to real action they did nothing, counter to one of the best pieces of advice I got on the art of the pickup from a rather ironic source, not The Game but the Perkei Avot:

Shammai used to say: Make your Torah established [regularity]; speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance. [M. Avot 1:15]

Neither did these men they study Torah nor ethics of any other kind. All they could do was type Lashon Hara about everyone and everything. While lying made up a large part of the world of the Pickup artist the approach anxious couldn't even do that, but could only talk endlessly about what was wrong with everyone else, or gossip and slander those who were successful or succeeding.

This is not true of Just this little world of course. Anyone who has ever been on an Internet bulletin board is familiar with the type. Yet now I understand them better. I understand, since I started in the same place as them, isolated from much of the world by my own fear. They were hidden in fortresses of their own devising, with a mere archer’s window to look out into the world. The ones with approach anxiety are so scared of the real world they live behind a keyboard ever cut off from human connection, always afraid of it. Their protection is their prison. I was willing to do exercises to improve myself, such as opening conversations with five women I met at a shopping mall. Actually I did talk to a lot of people. Because of those exercises I would do, I can now do things like dance at a friend’s wedding, something that I was terrified to do only a year before. And like Shammai, I smiled at everyone. I even made it a practice to smile at a hundred people a week, until it was a habit. For me that exercise has had a benefit of a glow about me that now I notice women smile at me now even before I smile at them. My smile makes me attractive. Yet, for many, such an exercise is terrifying, as I found out when I proposed to a few of these men that they smile at ten women over the course of a week. The panic that ensued was both terrifying and quite sad to me. These poor men were totally imprisoned.

There is a wonderful story about story itself in the Talmud

R. Abbahu and R. Hiyya b. Abba once came to a place; R. Abbahu expounded Aggadah and R. Hiyya b. Abba expounded legal lore. All the people left R. Hiyya b. Abba and went to hear R. Abbahu, so that the former was upset. [R. Abbahu] said to him: ‘I will give you a parable. To what is the matter like? To two men, one of whom was selling precious stones and the other various kinds of small ware. To whom will the people hurry? Is it not to the seller of various kinds of small ware?’ [Sotah 40a]

People go the place where they get the small useful things first the luxury of gems they cannot afford tend to come second. Some went to Strauss’ story to find a way to not be lonely any more. But they are so caught in their fortress all they can do is read and complain. My adventure here is Aggadah, the small useful things, not the diamonds and rubies of the Halakah. It is a parable of isolation we have from our own fear. Too many of us live in darkness, in fortress prisons built of fear. Firing the weapons of Lashon Hara, both men and women combat each other from these fortresses, never getting together, always being alone, and somehow believing this safer. Breaking down the barriers brings light, and love and joy into an otherwise dark world. Torah repeatedly teaches us that the only fear we should have is the fear of HASHEM, which is far different in character than the fear of anything in this world. Fear in this word is the beginning of isolation, but as Proverbs states “the fear of HASHEM is the beginning of wisdom” (Prv. 9:10) and of wisdom it is written:

13. Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding. 14. For the merchandise of it is better than the merchandise of silver, and its gain than fine gold. 15. (K) She is more precious than rubies; and all the things you can desire are not to be compared to her. 16. Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honor. 17. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold on her; and happy is every one who holds her fast. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

During Rosh Hashanah we make the fear of God a little more real with the metaphor of the Books of life and death. That fear of God however is for us to search our own stories of the year past, to see where we went wrong and where we went right. It is for us to break down the bricks of our isolation through telling our stories, to exchange the small ware of our lives with others. When we do, we find strength, and there is another chapter in our book of fully living.

So may you have a wonderful and awesome chapter in your book of fully living in the next year.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech 5766: Back to School

Deuteronomy 29:9- 31:30

This week we continue the address of Moses to the congregation. During this he notes:

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, "Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?" No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your mind, to observe it. [Deut 30:11-14]

There are many interesting midrashim about this passage. The rabbis open up one such midrash with a verse from Proverbs:

Wisdom is as unattainable to a fool as corals; he opens not his mouth in the gate (Prov. XXIV, 7). What is the meaning of,’ Wisdom is as unattainable to a fool as corals’? R. Tanhuma said: The fool enters a synagogue and sees people there engaged in discussing the law, and as he knows not what they are saying he feels ashamed…

The Rabbis say: The fool enters the synagogue, and seeing there people occupying themselves with the law he asks: 'How does a man begin to learn the law?’ They answer him: ‘First a man reads from a Scroll, then the Book [of the law], and then the prophets, and then the Hagiographa; when he has completed the study of the Scriptures he learns the Talmud, and then the Halakah, and then the Aggadah.’ After hearing all this [the fool] says to himself, ‘When can I learn all this?’ and he turns back from the gate. This is the force of, ’He opens not his mouth in the gate.’ [Deut R VIII]

If this didn’t make any sense, R. Jannai gives a parable.

R. Jannai said: This can be compared to a loaf suspended in the air; the fool says, ‘Who can bring it down?’ But the wise man says, ‘Did not someone suspend it? ‘And he takes a ladder or a stick and brings it down. So anyone who is a fool says: ‘When will I succeed in reading the whole law? ' But the man who is wise-what does he do? He learns one chapter every day until he completes the whole law. God said: ' IT IS NOT TOO HARD, but if [you find it] too hard, it is your own fault, because you do not study it.’

This all comes to mind because it is Elul and September. This is back to school time once again. My first day of Hebrew studies for the academic year is this week, and many school children once again take up the aleph bet and the rest. But for many in their later years there is a resistance to learning. Apparently this was a problem in the time of the rabbis as much as today for them to write these midrash. The rabbis knew the study of Torah was an endless task. There are so many levels involved that it is not a task that anyone can do instantly, nor can it ever be completed in a life time. The fool of these stories sees study and has a reaction of not studying. The fool is intimidated and ashamed he is not among this number of scholars. In his shame he turns for the door since he feels he does not belong there. In the second case he sees the end product, knows the process, but thinks he does not have time to do the work.

Yet there is a wonderful story found in another midrash to remind us it is never too late to learn:

What were Akiva's beginnings?
It is said: Up to the age of forty, he had not yet studied a thing. One time, while standing by the mouth of a well in Lydda, he inquired, "Who hollowed out this stone?" and was told, "Akiva, haven't you read [in Scripture] that 'water wears away stone' [Job 14:19]?--it was water [from the well] falling upon it constantly, day after day. "At that, R. Akiva asked himself: Is my mind harder than this stone? I will go and study at least one section of Torah. He went directly to a schoolhouse, and he and his son began reading from a child's tablet. R. Akiva took hold of one end of the tablet, and his son of the other end. The teacher wrote down alef and bet for him, and he learned them; alef to tav, and he learned them; the book of Leviticus, and he learned it. He went on studying until he learned the whole Torah. [Avot R. Natan 6]

This story of R. Akiba’s education, who would become one of the greatest scholars of all time, started strangely enough in mid-life observing a stone, hollowed away by drops of water. He took that a a model for learning, taking everything in drop by drop. We read elsewhere he took a total of twenty four years of study to achieve his scholarly greatness. [b. Ketubot 62-63a]

Jewish practice is based on divine revelation of mitzvot happening very rarely, if not only once at Sinai. Judaism is not a religion which believes that people can change the rules on their own by talking to God. Moses in his speech is reminding the people that from now on there is no divine revelation of law, there is only the judgment of a majority. With the death of Moses, there will be no more like Moses, in that there will be no more telling us laws and practices. Granted the prophets tell us that we’re doing those practices wrong, but in very rare emergencies does anyone create a new law. It’s all there in Torah.

Our verse is even quoted by the rabbis in the famous case of Baba Metzia 59b. In the story, rabbi Eliezer Calls on a Divine voice, a bat kol, to prove his legal point. When the voice from heaven agrees with R. Eliezer, R. Joshua objects, quoting “it is not in heaven!” God’s reaction to this, it is claimed, was laughing in joy repeatedly saying “my sons have defeated me!” Whether this really happened or was propaganda for strengthening the rabbinic authority, it does reflect a major theme of Judaism, the core of our passage in Deuteronomy. We are a religion where God’s commandments to us are as close as our mouths and our minds - the discourse of the house of study.

The Torah is as close as education. Education is to say the least not easy and does take a lot of time. In my fourth year of grad school and my ninth year of studying Hebrew, I realize how much more I have to go. Akiba learned his aleph-bet and even Leviticus rather fast, yet even he took twenty-four years to study enough to be the scholar we celebrate today. And while he had an incredible mind for halakic works, apparently many rabbis thought him inferior in some other areas of study. Even the great R. Akiba was uneven in his studies.

The point of education is not that it is done and gotten over. It is a process of learning, and there is always more to learn, drop by drop. I might eventually learn this Rabbinic Hebrew I’m struggling with now. But learning it is only a step into a bigger world of actually delving into the material of the rabbis, be it Midrash Rabbah or the lesser know ARN or Sifrei. There’s always more to study and learn. And while we are learning, we still transmit it to others, spreading the knowledge of mitzvot tradition and story of the Jewish people.

Jewish education is really never far. All it really needs is a book like Torah or Mishnah and a few people talking and thinking about the divine words on the page. While not believing in divine revelation of mitzvot any more the Talmudic Rabbis did equate conversation of Torah with divine revelation in the Perkei Avot:

If three have eaten at one table, and have spoken thereat words of Torah, [it is] as if they had eaten at the table of the All-present, Blessed be He [M. Avot 3:3]

[When there are] ten sitting together and occupying themselves with Torah, the Shechinah abides among them, as it is said: God stands in the congregation of God. [M. Avot 3:6]

As Elul ends and we get ready for the new year of 5766, whether you study every day or not at all, everyone should consider as a new years resolution adding a little more Study to their lives. Every time I walk into the classroom, I am always awed by the students and teachers around me and our divine conversation. Whether it is a grammatical point or a discussion of the legitimacy of the death penalty, the Shechinah resides among us every Wednesday night. I remember that a decade ago I knew nothing. And like Akiba before he studied, I was even hostile to scholars. Yet later in life I, like Akiba, am learning and working towards being one of those same scholars. I’m still growing, taking things step by step, not ashamed about where I am still ignorant, nor would I ever consider I’ll quit because I don’t have the time to study.

It is easy to be the lazy fool or the ashamed fool, But it is such a joy to have the Shechinah as a guest at your table. May you have the privilege of her sitting at your tables too.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ki Tavo 5766 -- The Pursuit of Happiness

Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

In this week's portion Ki Tavo, we have a series of things to do after entering the land of Israel. After writing the Torah on a stone tablet, there is a set of curses for those who do wrong, and a set of blessings for the nation, and another set of curses for the nation. We start with the commandment of the first fruits.

1. And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it; 2. That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there.

Ki tavo is in some ways an interesting name for this portion, given last week’s Ki Tetze. Ki Tavo means when you go in while Ki Tetze means when you go out. They are a match set that way. And very much like that matched set, I got to witness another matched set this weekend, a lovely wedding weekend of two of my friends. From the uf ruf thorough the wedding and concluding at a sheva bracha, I attended each of these events, happy I could rejoice with such a holy bride and groom. It was the D'vrei Torah of myself and others that inspired me to write this week’s column. I can’t remember who said what, (if you’ve been to a sheva bracha you understand why) but I’m saying this as teaching in all of your names, and in honor of the bride and groom.

As several discussed at the table of the sheva bracha, we read in the text this week:

11. And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. [Deuteronomy 26:11]

And we also read
And you shall offer peace offerings, and shall eat there, and rejoice before the Lord your God. [Deuteronomy 27:7]

The root word for happy here is S-M-cH, to gladden, rejoice or to make happy. It is from this root we have the word Simcha, a happy event. It also is the word used for rejoice or gladden in one of the seven blessings of the bride and groom, said at both the wedding and sheva bracha dinners after the wedding, originally found in the Talmud:

May You make the loved companions greatly to rejoice, even as of ancient times You did gladden Your creature in the Garden of Eden. Blessed art You, O Lord, who makes bridegroom and bride to rejoice. [B. Ketubot 8a]

Sameiach is not any kind of joy or merriment however. In a very interesting passage in tractate Brachot, expounding the passage in Psalm 2:11 rejoice with trembling, we have another interesting wedding tradition, though not by its current participant or place in the ceremony:

Mar the son of Rabina made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious. R. Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious. [Brachot 30b-31a]

Four hundred zuz is a lot of money. It is the minim bride price for a maiden, and for those who remember Had Gadya enough to buy 200 goats. There are limits to the joy we can feel, if the rabbis in this story would break such valuables. So the question becomes not whether we should be happy and rejoice in front of the Lord, but how?

S-M-cH as a root has 192 occurrences in all of Tanach, with 9 of them in Torah and 55 of them in the prophets. Of the 128 found in the writings, 44 are in Psalms and 26 in Proverbs. The poetry of psalms and prophets often helps in determining how a word is to be used and much about it meaning. For example we have the following in Psalms:

2:11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

9:3 I will be glad and rejoice in you; I will sing praise to your name, O you most High.

32:11 Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, you righteous; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart.

33:1 Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous; for praise befits the upright.

100:2 Serve the Lord with gladness; come before his presence with singing.

In Torah it is Sukkot and temple offerings which have this rejoicing attached to it.

Deuteronomy 12:7. And there you shall eat before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice in all that you put your hand to, you and your households, because the Lord your God has blessed you.

Deuteronomy 12:12 And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God, you, and your sons, and your daughters, and your menservants, and your maidservants, and the Levite who is inside your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you.

Deuteronomy 14:26 And you shall bestow that money for whatever your soul desires, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatever your soul desires; and you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you, and your household,

All of these passages are similar to the verse we have in this weeks portion for the first fruits and for peace offerings, and thus not extremely useful in figuring out how to be joyous. They tell to do so but still don’t tell us how.

There is another word for happy, ashrei. As a wedding present, I gave the newlyweds a painting with that word for happy. The picture was a landscape of a road leading across a river and into the mountains. As a center piece of calligraphy of the painting, I quoted the beginning colon of Psalm 84: 5 Ashrei yoshvei betecha. “Happy is those who dwell in your house.” My intention was to exploit a multiple meaning of this phrase, as a blessing that the couple’s house should be a place of happiness, and in its original context in Psalm 84:5- 6 referring to the temple.

5. Happy are those who dwell in your house, ever praising you. Selah.

6. Happy is the man whose strength is in you; in whose heart are the highways,

Yet many will not think of verse 84:6 when seeing that verse, as 84:5 is part of the Shacharit psalms liturgy, followed by this verse from Psalms 144:15

15. Happy is the people to whom that is the case! Happy is the people whose God is the Lord!

This leads into a recitation of the acrostic psalm 145. But in both psalm 84 and psalm 144, we have this general formula, of using this phrase ashrei to describe someone who is happy. Indeed this pattern is consistent. The word ashrei shows up forty times in Tanach, but only once in Torah, (Gen 30:13) and a few times in the prophets. There are in Proverbs several cases with moral wisdom:

3: 13. Happy is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gets understanding.

8:32. Now therefore listen to me, O you children; for happy are they who keep my ways. 33. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. 34. Happy is the man who hears me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors.

20:7. The just man walks in his integrity; happy are his children after him.

28:14. Happy is the man who fears always; but he who hardens his heart shall fall into mischief.

Most of the rest occur in Psalms and share this pattern of taking about ashrei as a consequence of doing mitzvot, being ethical and loving God and becomes a consequence of doing so. Some examples in Psalms include:

1:1-2 Happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scorners. But whose delight is in the Torah of the Lord; and in his Torah he meditates day and night.

2:12 Happy are all who put their trust in him.

31: 1-2. … Happy is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no guile.

41:2. Happy is he who considers the poor; the Lord will save in the day of evil.

89:16. Happy is the people who know the joyful sound; they shall walk, O Lord, in the light of your countenance.

94:12. Happy is the man whom you chasten, O Lord, and whom you teach from your Torah;

146:5. Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God;

In our potion this week we have the blessing and curses. Blessed is he who… and cursed is he who… But what is more than blessed? Being happy. Stuck within Psalms and Proverbs is this formula for that kind of happiness, which can only be described by the holy righteousness of ashrei. Some may see it elsewhere, in a Buddha smile or in a self-actualized person. But for the righteous Jew, when we are that kind of happy, then we truly are joyous enough to give offerings, whatever they might be, in joy before the Lord.