by Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

This coming Sunday evening we usher in Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu, the Season of our Happiness. Let us take a moment to consider what the Torah has in mind when it speaks of the concept of happiness, of Simcha.

The Torah and Halakha take the concept quite seriously. In the midst of the Tochacha, the long litany of curses, in Parashat Ki Tavo we are told that we are being punished “Tachat asher lo avadatem at Hashem Elokecha B’Simcha – because you did not serve Hashem with happiness.” Does that mean that all of the Mitzvot we perform are somehow valueless if we do not, or cannot, smile sufficiently or express enough joy while performing them? Is that so horrible that it leads to all of those terrible curses?

Alternatively Halakha requires that if one, God forbid, is in mourning, is in the midst of Shiva, when Yom Tov begins he/she must suddenly transition from the grief of loss to the Simcha of Yom Tov.  Does Halakha think that people are so shallow or that emotions are so unimportant that one can be expected to go from despair to joy with the setting of the sun?

Equally perplexing, if one looks at the end of Massechet Ta’anit or at the Rambam’s explanation of why we do not say Hallel on Rosh HaShanah and Yom KippurYom Kippur is also considered to be a Yom Simcha, a day of happiness. I think it is fair to say that late in the afternoon on Yom Kippur, as we tried hard to concentrate on the Tefilah, rather than on how hungry and tired we were, we were thinking of the day as being serious, a bit somber, one hopes meaningful, but not particularly joyous.

The Torah answers all of these questions with an important combination of words. Just about every time the word Simcha – as a noun or in verb form – appears throughout Devarim it  is preceded or followed by the words “Lifnei Hashem,” best translated as “Before,  or perhaps,  In the Presence of, God.” We are told to be joyous when we bring sacrifices to the House of God, when we eat the Ma’aser Sheini that we bring to Jerusalem, when we celebrate our holidays – all “Lifnei Hashem.”  As explained by Rav Soloveitchik z”tl, authentic happiness is only achieved with an awareness that one is always in the presence of God. So it isn’t good enough to go through the motions and perform the Mitzvot mindlessly and habitually without a clear sense of being Lifnei Hashem. Halakha can assume that because we are always aware of the presence of God, of the role of God in our lives, that we can shift from mourning to Simchat Yom Tov, not to giddy and inauthentic happiness which pretends to nullify legitimate grief but to an enhanced sense of the presence of God which helps put all of life in perspective. That is why Yom Kippur and the forgiveness that comes with it is a day of Simcha: By removing the barrier created by sin it returns us to a more intimate sense of God’s presence. Last Tuesday night at the end of Kol Nidrei we first said two Pesukim which ask Hashem for forgiveness and only then, with the confidence that God will respond affirmatively, did we recite Shehehcheyanu, the Bracha of joy.

The Gemara in Pesachim tells us that the holidays are meant to be Hatzi Lachem and Hatzi Lashem – half for us and half for God. As we enjoy family, food, and friends in the coming days let us not lose sight of the spiritual element of the holiday as we celebrate it in the presence of God.

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Samai-ach

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