Thursday, February 28, 2008

Happiness and Rejoicing as Service of God.

Shabbat I learned with two young men Rambam’s introduction to Chelek and I had an insight that explained to me an interesting Halacha in MT. In a lengthy discussion about Reward and Punishment and Olam Haba in that context, Rambam explains that physical wellbeing is only a facilitator for the greater good which is the intellectual apprehension of eternal truths. The pleasure a person gets from this apprehension has an element of Olam Haba in it. It allows man to get in touch with eternity.

נמצא שאין תכלית התורה שתדשן האדמה ויאריכו ימים

ויבריאו הגופות, אלא ייעזרו על קיומה בכל הדברים הללו. וכן אם עברו יהיה

עונשם שיבואו עליהם כל אותם המעצורים עד שלא יוכלו לעשות טוב וכמו שאמר

תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' וכו'.

The objective of the Torah is not for the earth to become verdant and for people to live long and healthy lives. These things are only facilitators [for doing good – in context – intellectual apprehension of eternal truths]. Should people transgress, their punishment will be that all kinds of barriers will prevent them from doing good. As it says: because you did not serve the LORD thy God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart by reason of the abundance of all things. (Devarim 28:47)

The verse Rambam uses as proof text is found in the middle of the Tochecha in Devarim where the Torah lists a series of mishaps and tragedies that will befall the Jewish people in their land. Rambam reads the verse as telling us that all this came about because we were not happy and satisfied when things were abundant. We should have dedicated our lives to serving God with joyfulness and gladness of heart when things were going well for us. Our material wellbeing is only there to allow us to serve God not for its own sake. Our ignoring this basic principle, pushed us to act in irresponsible ways eventually bringing about the downfall of our society.

As I was learning this with my Chaverim, a Rambam in MT at the end of Hilchot Lulav (8:15), came to mind –

שהשמחה שישמח אדם בעשיית המצוות ובאהבת האל שציווה בהן, עבודה גדולה היא;

וכל המונע עצמו משמחה זו, ראוי להיפרע ממנו, שנאמר "תחת, אשר לא עבדת את

ה' אלוהיך, בשמחה, ובטוב לבב"

For the joy that a person has for doing the Mitzvot and loving God who commanded them, is a great service. Anyone that refrains from this joy deserves to be punished, as it says: “Because you did not serve the LORD thy God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart by reason of the abundance of all things.” (Devarim 28:47)

I have always struggled with this Halacha. It never spoke to me. How can one be commanded to have an emotion? If I am not happy, how do I become if commanded to be? Noting the common verse Rambam uses as proof text, here and in the Pirush Hamishna above, a light went off in my head. I think I finally get what this Halacha is telling us.

At the end of the agricultural year, after gathering all the products of the land, we look back at our accomplishment and we experience feelings of satisfaction. In corporate America, this success would be seen as a challenge and our focus would immediately turn to the future and to how we can better this record next season. The more material wealth we can accumulate, the greater self-satisfaction we will have. The joy we feel at our accomplishment is tinged with anxiety for the future.

The attitude the Torah is trying to teach is that all this material wealth is essential but is not the goal. The goal is to have enough to allow us to spend time and effort on intellectual growth. If we have a bountiful year, our material needs have been satisfied and we can dedicate ourselves to the more lofty pursuit of acquiring knowledge. Material well being is only a necessary requirement not a goal in itself. The joy that one has when we have a successful crop is that it will allow us to serve God by getting to know Him – loving Him, which is synonymous with knowing. For the joy that a person experiences for doing the Mitzvot and loving God who commanded them, is a great service. That is why only the intellectuals and the sages actively partake in this rejoicing.

מצוה, להרבות בשמחה זו. ולא היו עושין אותה עמי הארץ, וכל מי שירצה--אלא

גדולי חכמי ישראל וראשי הישיבות והסנהדרין והחסידים והזקנים ואנשי מעשה,

הם שהיו מרקדין ומספקין ומנגנין ושמחין במקדש בימי חג הסוכות; אבל כל העם,

האנשים והנשים--כולן באין לראות, ולשמוע:

It is a Mitzvah to rejoice a lot. The masses did not partake nor anyone that just wanted to. Only the greater of the wise of Israel, the heads of the Yeshivot, the Sanhedrin, the righteous, the elders and men of good deeds partook. They were the ones who danced, clapped their hands, sang and rejoiced in the Beit Hamikdash during the holiday of Sukkoth. The rest of the people, men and women, came to see and hear.

The masses watch and hear but do not really have the same feeling of joy that the perfected individuals experience. They however see that it is not those who were instrumental in having a successful crop, that rejoice. Material rewards per se are not reason enough for joy. It is what material success can bring in spiritual and intellectual growth that is the reason for the happiness and joy. Forgetting that will bring about the collapse of our society through greed, injustice and the distortion our moral compass.


  1. Hi R' Guttmann, I just want to share with you a comment I posted on R' Horwitz's blog concerning the recent ban on concerts....

    85. 3/2/08 - 1:22 AM

    "The belief in daas torah is the only thing we have to grasp onto." (commenter #2)

    "Funny, I believe in God and in the Torah. I thought I could grasp onto those.

    The world in which the highest value is to shut off my own mind scares me almost as much as the one in which the most absolute value is my own intellect. (commenter #80)"

    (me) -
    I was really struck (like commenter 80) with the absurd notion that his (commenter 2) faith rested on "daas torah". What we have here is a problem people. Our emunah rests not on people but in HASHEM - our one true god. Rabbinim, Gedolim, Chachamim are not here to c"v supplement this belief, but further and inform our idea in Hashem, and how to properly know, emulate and worship him. So my friends, its important to have emunas chachachim in order to further emunash hashem, HOWEVER the emunas chachamim cannot be the end all and be all. So we have two option where yidishkeit, frumkeit, and Orthodoxy can go. We can either go on a path of irrational, emunah peshuta, daas torah, quasi-mystical Judaism, in which our leaders are (basically) infallible and whose words are perfect. OR we can steer Orthodox Judaism in this modern age, into a rationalist but serious path of righteousness with accountability, of belief enjoined with knowledge, of Yiras Hashem going hand in hand with Ahavas Hashem. However the latter path entails us to forgo the idea of daas torah that lets some of us hold so dear. Our leaders are special, incredible human beings that do so much for the klal, however as other commentators pointed out - they are human beings. We listen to the wisdom of our sages because they are true and lead us to truth, not because the words are inherently holly devoid of any realism. When gedolim make pronouncements and people see inherent sheker in it (not from the gedolim c"v but from the process-at-large), this unfortunately leads to the strong backlash we see today. So the answer I believes, is not to blame the gedolim. But lets try to change the system, lets create a vibrant American Orthodoxy, that embraces Torah-rationalism and is proud and strong in its practice and beliefs. Our children should not be taught what to do - just because I said so (ie total emuna peshuta). Our children need to be educated already in high school that ALL we do is because its true (ie to be able to answer all questions, unapologetically and with complete intellectual honesty), and that the concept of yichud hashem is what Judaism is based on, and what we all aspire to emulate and understand. However this involves embracing the rational-Judaism of the Ramabam, Rav Hirsch, Rav Sadia Gaon, and Avraham Avinu, and iy"h in the future we can see a change in that, which will imho go a long way in solving so many issues pervading our community.