As we experience the Jewish holidays, we are confronted with questions that are in need of discussion. The Torah demands from us that on Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot we express happiness. Maimonides counts this mitzvah as one of the 613: “V’samachta b’chagecha” – we must be happy in our holidays.
But how can the Torah mandate happiness? It can demand from us that we perform mitzvot – deeds – but how can the Torah require of us to express feelings?
This dilemma becomes more intense when we consider the fact that if one experiences a loss of a dear one right before Rosh Hashanah, one sits shiva for just an hour and the holiday then usurps the need for sitting shiva the full seven days. When Yom Kippur arrives eight days later, the Shloshim period of mourning is also usurped. In all, the bereaved mourns for only eight days. The reason is that when there is a public holiday in which all of Israel is celebrating, the private mourning must cease and the mourner must somehow join the public in displaying joy for the holiday. Additionally, sometimes our lives are so filled with darkness that one does not want to experience any facet of simcha.
So how can the Torah demand that we express joy? Can we control our feelings? Do we have the ability to just turn off our emotions and participate in happiness when we are hurting so bad and life is dark for us or we are in need to mourn for our deceased?
The same query can be posed for the mitzvah to love G-d. According to Maimonides this also is a mitzvah based on Torah law and one has the obligation to love G-d. But once again how can the Torah command feelings? Love is not something that one turns off or on. You cannot require love! How then are we commanded to love Almighty G-d?
Lastly, a Jew is required to pray. This too is a law predicated by the Torah. But how can the Torah order prayer when its implementation stems from the heart? Can we demand emotions?
Obviously, by demanding from us these emotions of happiness, love and prayer from the heart, the Torah is telling us that these feelings are not necessarily spontaneous, but are learned and acquired and sometimes required.
Now let’s turn to another question: Why do the Jewish people pray so much?
Moshe, when pleading for the Jewish people after they worshipped the Golden Calf, beseeched G-d with only one sentence. When praying for his sister Miriam he used only five words: “Kel na, refa na lah” – please G-d, heal her now,” and then he was answered.
Shimshon, when he was blinded and placed on display for the Philistines to mock him and abuse him, only prayed a few words before G-d answered his prayers. Yet the Jewish people are laden with prayer books on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – each around 800 pages long – and we stand for 14 to 16 hours praying to G-d. Why do we need so much prayer? Can’t we just say five words like Moshe our teacher and that would be sufficient for G-d to answer us?
Our Sages tell us that prayer is the most powerful tool for humankind – and yet it is the most abused and taken for granted. If we would know how to harness its power, all our prayers could be answered. If we could express the same feelings that Moses expressed in only those five words that he uttered, our prayers would never go unanswered. Our prayers are so long and cumbersome because we are searching for the equivalent of just those five words, said with such emotion and intensity by Moshe and Shimshon.
When praying in school, I always instructed my students that the first part of their daily service be said aloud. Reading just with one’s eyes is not sufficient. One must say the words aloud as if it is a mantra, and by repeating over and over we hopefully will reach a higher stage of meditation allowing us to enter the presence of G-d when reciting the silent Shmoneh Esrei. We are hopeful that after saying all the prayers before the silent devotion prayer, that we could find the kavannah, the feeling, equal to just the few words that Moshe articulated. Sincerity during prayer is not only spontaneous, but also must be learned.
The same is true of love.
The word in Hebrew for love is “ahava.” Within that word one sees the word “hav,” to give.
The question is asked: Do we love and as a result we give? Or do we give and as a result we love?
The answer posited is that by giving we deepen our love. When a mother carries a child in her womb for nine months, when parents forego countless hours, money and concern for their children, their love deepens and becomes truly profound. Indeed our Sages tell us that if you want to overcome the hate that you have for someone, give them something – do for them a favor and ultimately the hate will transform to love. We deepen our love for G-d because we give and sacrifice for him.
Finally, to be happy is a process that is also learned and practiced. Rabbi Yisrael Salanter states that one’s face is the only part of the body that is public domain. Our faces are called in Hebrew “panim” because they display what is in the “pinim,” inside of us. The word is presented in the plural because our face belongs to everyone and therefore we must be careful how we show our emotions.
Happiness is not only natural but is learned. We learn to smile at people, to show tolerance. Research has proven that when one smiles, their entire being changes and their personality undergoes positive change. Sometimes as well, even in our darkest moments when life seems so challenging and unfair, we must garner our courage to experience simcha. One must learn to be happy even in dark moments when the world seems to be closing in on them and to express this joy at the appropriate times including the Jewish holidays.
I just attended the bar mitzvah celebration of my grandson Binyamin Simcha Ciment. A young, dynamic, happy child, he is unfortunately suffering from a serious condition which literally sucks the life and strength from his parents – my children, Adina and Avi. At his glorious bar mitzvah celebration Adina spoke these heartfelt and meaningful words:
“Sometimes you need a lot of strength to have a celebration. I’m talking about the strength to decide to celebrate even when you sometimes don’t want to. I’m talking about the strength to be happy when it sometimes is hard; to be happy, to be positive, to fight for a simcha even when it’s hard.”
The message of the Torah demanding emotions now becomes more plausible. We are capable of teaching ourselves how to pray, how to love and how to be happy.
The challenge is formidable but is a goal worth aspiring to achieve.