“The Imperative of Joy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

The festival of Sukkot is known throughout Rabbinic literature as “Z’man Sim’chah’tay’noo,” the Time of Our Rejoicing. But joy and Judaism do not always appear to be compatible. In fact, to many, the concepts of joy and Judaism seem to be at fierce odds with each other.

Throughout the long European exile, a popular proverb that many Jewish parents drilled into their children’s consciousness was “Shver tzu zain ah Yid,” being Jewish is tough! This slogan could hardly have instilled great optimism about Judaism into these children. Of course optimism wasn’t very easy to sustain under the harsh and discriminatory laws of the time that forbade Jews from entering most trades, and often summarily dismissed Jews from their jobs and even from their lands. When things got worse and the Cossacks, Pogromchiks and Bolsheviks began to attack, the feeling of “Shver tzu zein ah Yid,” seemed to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The adage, “Shver tzu zain ah Yid,” being Jewish is tough, probably more than any other statement about Jewish life, has influenced many young Jews to decide that they no longer wanted to live their lives as victims or would-be victims, and caused them to simply walk away from Judaism. That is why it’s not at all surprising to learn that approximately 85% of the Jewish community in Berlin formally underwent conversion to Christianity between the years 1812 and 1848. That’s why the father, whose son Benjamin Disraeli went onto become the Prime Minister of England, converted to the Anglican faith in order to make certain that his child could advance in Christian society. It’s why Heinrich Heine, the great German poet, also felt compelled to abandon his Jewish faith in order to gain recognition as the greatest literary genius of his time.

With all that said, pessimism is clearly not the normal state of Judaism. If we examine the chronicles of the origins of the world as they appear in the Torah we see that after completing the six days of creation, including creating the first human beings, the Al-mighty himself looks around and says unequivocally (Genesis 1:31), “Va’yar Eh’loh’kim et kohl ash’er ah’sah, v’he’nay tov m’od,” And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good. Not just good, but very good!

If that’s the case, how does evil enter the picture?

Although G-d obviously created the potential for evil, the functioning world that He had created was a very good world. It was only after the human being defied G-d by eating the forbidden fruit, that pain, suffering and death were introduced into the world. Earning our bread by the sweat of the brow now became the norm.

There is a similar misconception regarding the nature of the High Holidays. Although the month of Tishrei and its festivals are often viewed as days of gloom and doom, the Tishrei festivals are not really so.

Rosh Hashana is essentially a joyous holiday on which we look forward to the judgment of G-d, because we are so convinced that He will judge us favorably. Yom Kippur is an obviously awe-inspiring day, but again we are assured that the “red thread” will turn white and forgiveness will be granted. Besides, Yom Kippur is hardly the normal tone of Judaism. In fact the single solemn day of Yom Kippur, is followed by eight days (nine outside of Israel) of joyous and inspiring festivity, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.

The misrepresentations fostered by the non-Jewish theologians that the Jewish worshiper offers his prayers in mortal fear and trembling before a vengeful deity are surely not based in reality! The Jew serves G-d in joy and with joy, and proclaims three times a day (Psalm 145:9), “The L-rd is good to all, and His tender mercies are over all His works.” It fact the psalmist sings out loud and clear, declaring in Psalm 100:2 “Iv’doo et Hashem b’sim’cha, boh’oo l’fa’nav bir’na’na” Serve the L-rd with joy, come before him with exalting.

The Avot D’Rabi Natan, chapter 34:9, points out that there are ten different words in the Hebrew language for joy. No other language has as many synonyms, underscoring that joy is the natural state of Jews and it is the spirit of optimism that is meant to prevail in the community. Our rabbis state that mitzvoth, commandments, must always be preformed with happiness (Simcha Shel Mitzvah). The Talmud in Brachot 31a, underscores that the Divine spirit never dwells in the presence of sadness and depression, only in the joyous presence of mitzvoth. The Talmud further states that a person should not pray when in a state of sadness or laziness or laughing or conversational light-hardness or out of idle talk, but only out of joy for the mitzvah.

It is on the festival of Sukkot, that joy in the Jewish community reaches its peak. The rabbis of the Talmud (Sukkah 51a) declare that those who have not witnessed the ancient Temple festival of the Drawing of the Water, Simchat Beit Ha’Sho’ay’vah, have never truly experienced joy in their lifetimes. Everyone, from king to pauper, was expected to be joyous. The great rabbis of old juggled fire and danced acrobatically without concern about appearing coarse or uncultivated.

It is therefore critical that we not allow ourselves to fall into the trap of those who negatively stereotype Judaism. As difficult, as depressing as Jewish life may be at times, our message to our coreligionists, especially our young people, must be “S’iz gut tzu zien ah Yid“, It’s very good to be Jewish.

But this can only be achieved by sharing with our brothers and sisters the positive, joyous Jewish rituals of Judaism, like the wonderful festival of Sukkot, and to declare that G-d’s message to His people is truly “Iv’doo et Hashem b’sim’cha,” Serve G-d through joy.

Happy Sukkot.
May you be blessed.

The festival of Sukkot begins this year on Monday evening, October 13th and continues through Wednesday night, October 15th. The intermediate days of Sukkot begin on Wednesday night, October 15th and continue through Hoshana Rabbah, Monday, October 20th. The festival days resume again on Monday evening, October 20th with the holiday of Shmeeni Atzeret and continue through Tuesday night, when Simchat Torah commences. The holiday concludes on Wednesday night, October 22nd.