Is Judaism All About Mourning? Reflections on the Tochacha ( Rebukes) in Bechukothai
Have you heard the words of the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Maher Hathout,made publically a few years ago:
“The Jews had always been a problem in European countries. They had to be confined to ghettoes and periodically massacred. But still they remained, they thrived and they held whole Governments to ransom...Even after their massacre by the Nazis of Germany, [Jews] survived to continue to be a source of even greater problems for the world...The Holocaust failed as a final solution”.
This was not from the lunatic fringe of Iran- this was form a very successful and educated leader of a moderate Malaysia. It is a country that has no problem blaming every failure on a Jewish conspiracy even though there are no Jews left.
I am sure that you saw the latest ADL research—one quarter of the world hates us, and in the Moslem world—it reaches as high as 75-80% and above, especially in Arab speaking lands. In contrast, even Iran. For all the Ayatollahs threats, the level of Jew-hatred levels off at a little over 50%, actually better that among the Greeks or the Armenians, whom, we thought, should have known better.
So, we say, what else is new. Es ist shver zu sein a Yid- It is difficult to be a Jew- from our neighbors around us. Then, we have our Torah reading today. It is the “ Tochachah”- The Reproaches- verses of doom and gloom( the ending of Leviticius). We have, in the start, a 9 sentences of promise if we behave ourselves. But, Oh My!, 30 sentences threatening gloom and doom if we fail to live by the ordinances of the Torah. It’s hard enough when we need to deal with our neighbors, and then, we need to deal with the one up above!
I would therefore assume that we should be a very gloomy and downcast people, who would approach our religion with a great sense of dread and apprehension.
So how do we Jews approach our faith?
This is how this great British writer, Samuel Pepys described his first, and last, visit to a synagogue, in the mid 1600’s in England. Jews had only been allowed to reside and officially open a synagogue a few years before, so keep in mind that he is looking at a previously unknown type of humanity in England: So these Jews had finally found a safe haven after being bounced around the Mediterranean after Spanish expulsion
He goes to the Jewish Synagogue:
“ where the men and boys in their veils, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and
some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their veils do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his veil. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burdens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portuguese; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this. Away
thence with my mind strongly disturbed with them, by coach and set down my wife in Westminster Hall, and I to White Hall”.
What was his luck to visit a synagogue—not on Yom Kippur with its solemnity, not on Tisha B av with its sadness—but—of all days—when we are at our wildest in misbehavior, next to Purim—on Simhas Torah! What made it difficult, and what disturbed this English writer so much, is that, in the name of religion, one could be so happy and carried away with joy. This is, afterall, the England just after the Puritan period and the restoration of the monarchy. The England of the stiff upper lip. A downtrodden people did not show signs of depression when it came to the symbol of the purpose for their being, the Torah.
With all the trepidation, with danger from the outside, with overwhelming moral and religious expectations from above, we celebrate our faith, our Torah, singing and dancing.
Indeed, while Samuel Pepys was on the outside looking askance at these Jews, the Jews inside were dancing
This is something we need to keep in mind- that our religion is based on a celebration, a celebration of the Holy in life, and that is a reason for joyous celebration.
For Jews, it is too easy to forget.
We all fall into the terrible trap of the tragedy of Jewish history. This is a great trap that all Jewish thinkers fall into. Salo Baron, the great Jewish historian decried our obsession with the gloomy and the tragic- -all our writings and preachings are based on the lachrymose theory of Jewish history. Lachrymose~full of tears, heart-wrench; sobbing. Our whole tone of thought overcast by the recollection of centuries of tragedy. " es ist shwer zu sein a Yid.
There is a great danger to this approach. How do we engage our new generation if we only speak of our tears.
The Torah itself, in Devarim, informs us that one of the greatest sins that we could commit against God is not just to worship idols and fail in the commandments, but above all ,to fail to worship with joyfullness and glad heart.
As we delve deeper into the Bible , we suddenly discover that our religion is not one of gloom and doom and thou shalt nots, but a teaching of joy and gladness.
I once was invited to lecture to a college class on the Jewish attitudes towards human sexuality. I pointed out to them, that the very first existential fact of the human being, according to the Torah. was the loneliness of Adam. Here is the essence of being human--Man is alone--man finds woman--man finds romance- man is happy. That's what God hoped. If it doesn't always turn out that way, you can' t blame God for trying.
Truth is, the Bible is full of joy--there are about 250 references in the Bible to the word 'simha"-joy-in its various forms – noun, adjective, or verb. Then there are other variations, such as Rinah-- Ivdu et Hsahem besimha, bou lefanav berenanah. Worship the lord in joy, go before him in gladness. Or Osher-- Ashrey Yoshvey veytecha--Happy are they who dwell in you house. The people of the Bible were not depressed!
The Rabbis, in formulating Judaism as we know it, constantly emphasized the Simcha, the joy, of mitzvoth, of observance.
They preached against baseless self-denial, as they were opposed to endless indulgence. They preached against any attempts to establish monasteries or monastic movements based on self-punishment or a disavowal of the normal run of human life.
To be considered a saint, in the eyes of the Rabbis, one must be willing to enjoy life, not deny it. Indeed, they said, when we get to heaven, we will be asked: Did we indeed, eat everything that our eyes saw and desired ?(kosher, of course, as long as we're on a healthy diet).
If we did not eat all, then we would have to atone for that sin.
As for the secret to getting into heaven, one of the sages declared that if one ate three good, enjoyable meals on Shabbat, ending with the third, Shalos Shudos, the seudah shlishit, that he was already in heaven.
This open vision of Judaism which the rabbis developed in the Talmud
was clouded over in the course of the centuries by inquisitions, and expulsions. We as a people became sunk in the depths of misery. That's where the "lachrymose vision" of Judaism came in.
One of the most wonderful movements appeared only 3 centuries ago to save us from the death -trap of despair. Some of you grew up within that movement and understand what I am getting at. Under the leadership of a simple laborer in the Carpathian mountains, a man known by his nickname, the Besht-The Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Goodly and Godly name, a revolution was forged in the Jewish mentality. Among other things, a key point driven home was, as phrased by one of the movements masters- Rebbe Nachman-- Yidin, zoll nit sein meyaeish." Jews,you may never give up hope.'"
This movement, Hasidism, gave us a new turn; we are all, Reform, to Orthodox, influenced by this movement. We are all Hasidim in spirit.
Said the Baal Shem Tov "No child can be born except through pleasure and joy. By the same token, if one wishes his prayers to bear fruit, he must offer them with pleasure and joy."
Said the Baal ShemTov It is my aim and the essence of my pilgrimage on earth to show my brethren by living demonstration, how one may serve God with merriment and rejoicing. For he who is full of joy is full of love for men and all fellow creatures."
It is time for us all to rediscover 'lvdu et hashern' be simcha. " Worship the Lord in gladness” Now, more than before. When things are well, we can afford to be morose and despondent. In times of stress, when we are worried about our day to day troubles- our health, our fortune, our families the greatest danger is to give in to despair- -. Yiden, zoll nit sein meyaesh--a Jew may not despair , may not give up hope. If we are to face the future strongly, then it is through “ivdu et hashem besimha”--worship the lord in gladness.