Joy in Alignment

A couple of weeks ago my husband spoke at our synagogue about the Torah portion re’eh. I want to share what he said because I believe it sheds light on two recent posts “Unpopular Psychology” and “What Makes Responsibility Feel Good?” I’ll let the reader connect the dots of meaning for yourself.

The root שמח (happiness) appears seven times in the Torah portion Re’eh and it appears only three times in the Torah up until this section, each time with a different connotation.

The first time is when Moshe is given the task of leading the Jewish people out of Egypt. God tells him that his brother Aaron will greet him. The words are וראך ושמח בלבו (He will see you and be happy in his heart.) This connotes a spontaneous good feeling. In this case it is brotherly love. Aaron will not be jealous of Moshe but supportive and happy for Moshe when he is given his new role as leader.

The second time the word appears is ושמחתם לפני ה’ א-לקיכם שבעת ימים (You will be happy before the Lord your God seven days.) This refers to taking the lulav (palm branch) in the Temple all seven days, and according to Maimonides it refers to the celebratory singing and dancing done there on Simchat Beit Hasho’eva, a special day of festivities on the holiday of Succot. Happiness here is defined not as a spontaneous emotion but as a physical action. These “acts of happiness’ are not to violate Sabbath or holiday laws.

The third time the word is mentioned is והרעתם בחצוצרות…וביום שמחתכם… (You will blow the horns…and on the day of your happiness…) The Sifrei explains that this refers to the Sabbath. Although the Sabbath day is not called a day of simcha (happiness) but rather oneg (enjoyment), kavod (honor) and menucha (rest), the actions we do to express these ideas (good food, clothing and rest) bring happiness (Rav David Pardo). Thus, this third type of happiness is not spontaneous or a physical expression but the feeling of happiness that is the outcome of certain actions.

The interaction between the action of joy and the resulting feeling of joy may be described using Rav Soloveitchik’s halachic terms of the מעשה המצווה and the קיום המצווה, i.e. the difference between the mitzvah act and the emotional content of it. The mitzvah of lifting up the four species of palm branch, etc in the Temple and the special holiday celebration there must be accompanied by the inner feeling. It could be that if one performed the mitzvah of the four species in the Temple on a day other than the first day, and did not have the inner feeling of happiness he has not performed the mitzvah, or at least has not performed it optimally.

Maimonides expands the idea of happiness when performing a mitzvah to include not just the Succot holiday (when these acts were performed in the Temple) but to all mitzvot. He writes: The happiness that a person must have in doing the mitzvot and the love of the One who gave them. Note that two phrases are used: action (doing the mitzvah) and emotional content (love of the giver of the mitzvah).

A person’s actions and inner content may out of sync. On the one hand, one may feel a great desire to express joy in a mitzvah but refrain from doing so, out of concern for one’s image. On the other hand, one may show great enthusiasm externally, but internally he feels far less. It is not an authentic expression.

Maimonides deals with the first case, and says that anyone who prevents himself from engaging in the externals of joy when it is appropriate to so do, out of concern for their image, is a “sinner and a fool.”

A person has to have real love of God inside and to have the outer expressions be both enthusiastic and genuine.

He ended his talk by suggesting an exercise we can do to help us get to this state of performing one’s obligations with an inner joy inside. When thinking about what makes you joyful, whether it’s success in studies or work, friends, family or spouse, simply take the next step to remember what is the source of this joy – the Almighty.

The appreciation for God’s love for us can bring in its wake our love for God The obligation then becomes an expression of love in return.

One of the congregants came up to us afterward and said that even though he liked what my husband said, he felt uncomfortable about the “tit for tat” kind of thing. God does for you and loves you, so you should love in return.

I replied that this is not the way I heard it but that when you recognize and appreciate that the obligations/responsibilities you’re given to do are an expression of God’s love for you, that they are good, then you will have an inner response to this love and you will do those obligatory actions lovingly.

It’s very different from the begrudging kind of tit for tat where you do something good for me so I’ll do something good for you.

You act out of an awareness that this is good, and a person has a natural inner emotional joy that comes in response to being given a task that is good.

This can contribute I think to our discussion and lend greater meaning to the difference between responsibility and response-ability. Do you go through the motions of life or are you aligned with your relationship to life? If it’s the second, then happiness will come as a result of aligned actions.

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