Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Discover Happiness in the Sukkah

People think the pursuit of happiness justifies everything. As long as you're not obviously hurting someone else, liberal ideals say go right ahead, as long as it makes you happy. It's an inalienable right, and our misfortune is that we can't get it without having to pursue it. As Will Smith's character  reflects in the in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, 'how did the founding fathers know to call it the "pursuit" of happiness, and not just happiness?' Perhaps this misfortune exposes the randomness of humanity - pursuing happiness makes us competitive, constantly having to strive for more. It's like we're chasing a carrot on a stick, and the evolutionary advantage of it makes it natural even if noone knows what's so great about this carrot and why we're always chasing after it.

From this point of view, the festival of Sukkos is utterly unintelligible. It's all about being happy - it includes a special mitzvah to constantly be happy for 7 days and it is called the "time of our happiness." But instead of rewarding ourselves with a luxury vacation or reminiscing on the good times when we were settled in our land or something like that, we build frail huts and live in them for 7 days and remember wondering in the desert. All of the eating and drinking and family time is not the central Mitzvah of the holiday, only living in a sukkah and shaking a "Lulav". It even says the festival of Sukkos lands at the beginning of winter as opposed to spring just to clarify that we're not doing it to enjoy the weather (even though originally the Jews actually started living in Sukkos in spring, when they left Egypt).

Happiness, which is called "Simcha" שמחה in the Holy Tongue, is the experience of something called שלימות, or completion. You can have a limited kind of Simcha in any completion of a goal, but real inner Simcha is in the completion of your purpose for living. You have to know the purpose of being Jewish is very big. Because there is no end to a Jew's potential your completion is by definition outside of yourself. You cannot reach it. But what you can do is much greater. You can be a dreamer. You can set yourself up to be in a state of going beyond your nature and reaching for your purpose. And if you do that, the process becomes just as special as the end goal. 

That is what Sukkos is. It's not our right to just have happiness, it's our job and privilege to pursue completion and recognize how our heart finds happiness in that. Wandering the desert for 40 years was no piece of cake, even with miraculous protection. We could never get comfortable, ready to move at a moments notice to be with the divine presence. Encampments spanned everywhere from years to just days. The Mitzvos of Sukkos in all their halachic detail imprint on the subconscious of the Jewish soul the need to avoid being lazy and stagnant in order to jump on opportunities for completion as soon as they arise. And in that mode, you can realize happiness is not a carrot on a stick. Happiness is there in your heart when you notice the crazy stuff you do for a higher purpose.    

("מהר"ל ע"ז דף ג; ספר החינוך; ר' ירוחם ,שיבבי דעת "עליון שמתה מעונך)


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Back to Eden: Days of Judgment

The 10 days of repentance can be the most intense time of the Jewish year. From Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur we stand before our Creator in judgment which determines our fate for the coming year. Life and death hang in the balance.
For the unlearned onlooker, it may seem like this is not a ritual of spiritual growth, but of backward thinking and extreme self-punishment. What kind of god is this that cruelly demands his people to lower themselves and beg for their lives? 
Let us understand.

In Jewish thought, strictness and judgment, what's called מדת הדין always follows loving-kindness or מדת החסד. The world at its point of inception is pure חסד. Hashem had no reason whatsoever to create the world, other than to have an "other" to give to. And all of life flows outward from that source. In the deeper holy books it is called the "River that goes out from Eden (as in the garden of Eden)". But in order to protect this heavenly flow of life and goodness, Hashem created דין in the world so that we should not be embarrassed by receiving free gifts and so that the light should not be tarnished. (ועיין דעת תורה בראשית פז' שכל הדינים בתורה הם ככלי זיין ששומרים לחסד)  

Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, is called "Rosh" which means "head" because just like the rest of the body follows the head, the rest of the year follows this initial power of thought. Every year is a microcosm of creation, and its inception parallels the initial thoughts and deliberation with which Hashem created the world: Pure עיין מביט, קמה) חסד). Like we say in Davening זה היום תחילת מעשך זכרון ליום ראשון This day is the beginning of your actions, a remembrance of the first day. 

On Rosh Hashanah we read the Torah portion about Sarah Imeinu miraculously giving birth in old age after having become barren. The Shaarei Orah ('שער ט) says that we see in this portion a hint to the concept of Eden as a source of renewal in Sarah's words, "היתה לי עדנה" meaning that my menstrual cycle returned to me. Notice that she uses the word "עדנה," like Eden. Connecting to the source of life from its inception means no boundaries can limit the power of renewal.

Since דין has to be there to protect the חסד, the closer you get to the boundless חסד at its source, the stronger the דין has to be. In Jewish life, wherever you see intense judgment, you know there is a special opportunity for closeness. For example, when the Holy Temple was destroyed, the Gemara says the Babylonians found the two angelic figures that usually rested on the arc, which would normally either face toward or away from each other depending upon the Jewish nation's relationship status with Hashem. Amazingly, they found them embracing!

In halacha, those appointed to inflict punishment are required to be physically weak and exceedingly wise. Physically weak to reduce the intensity of the punishment, and exceedingly wise because they must understand that the punishment is only a secondary means of expressing the love and concern for the person being punished, and those intentions should be palpable in the punishment as well! (רמבם פ' ט"ו, סנ", ועיין פחד יצחק ראש השנה קונת' החסד מאמר ג' פ' ב-ג). 

These days are about going back to the love and kindness behind judgement. That's why this time of judegment is extended for 10 days and the easiest time for forgiveness. More than us begging Hashem, Hashem is begging us to wake up and allow Him to give to us.