Monday, May 25, 2020

In the previous article we discussed the idea that the charge to sustain one’s simchat hachaim” (joy of life) is an important value in our Jewish ideology. This, however, does not mean that we are meant to laugh our way through life. Rather, it reflects our commitment to grow spiritually and obtain our joy via the gifts Hashem sends our way and the spiritual gains we make. We also explored the idea that there is happiness to be gained from the good times in our lives, as well as the ability to transcend our challenges and come out a better version of the individuals we are expected to be. Moreover, we considered the foundational pillars of hakarat hatov (appreciation of God and mankind), ahavat habriyot (love of God and His creations) and shalom bayit (peace in the household/community) as the vehicles through which we can hold onto our happiness even in the face of the challenges Hashem sends our way. While these expectations can be daunting, our mission is eased when we also understand that Hashem gifted us with three special arenas where we can connect with Him on a deeper level: 1) the tefillot (prayers) we recite each day; 2) the Torah, which informs our lives, and 3) the numerous Yomim Tovim we celebrate that are chock-full of lessons and metaphors on how to fulfill the charge of simchat hachaim even through difficult times.

Several weeks ago I received a weekly dvar Torah sent by the children of our dear friends David Thaler, a”h, and his wife Eve; the loss of David last year was a tragic loss for his family, friends and our community. Aside from being a friend, as a school psychologist in a neighboring district David was also a colleague, who shared my attraction for divrei Torah that spoke to the psyche of mankind. Lucky for us, his children continue to send his divrei Torah on the parsha. In doing so they keep him alive in our hearts and souls. In a previous email on Parshat Bereishit, David touched upon some insights that spoke to the theme of simchat hachaim, which I selected for this year’s JL series.

In referencing Rabbi David Fohrman, he raised and responded to the question of why Hashem created a world where other beings would exist besides Himself, upon which He could bestow His goodness. Rabbi Fohrman, in the name of the rabbis of the Midrash, explained that Hashem’s primary motivation in doing so was to act on His desire to be capable of love. At the same time, Rabbi Fohrman also directed our attention to a seeming contradiction in that Hashem, as a spiritual essence, is not meant to have needs, wants and desires; given this truth, how then can it be that He had a “need” to do good and bestow love and kindness? Rabbi Fohrman clarifies this dilemma, explained that the teshuka (desire) referred to by the rabbis of the Midrash does not refer to our familiar perception that desires and cravings are based on “need.” Rather, Hashem’s “desire” comes from a place of “fullness.” To make this real for us, he explains that it is a craving that stems from realizing that one’s cup is already “overflowing” and desires to pour the “excess” into someone else’s cup. I believe that this idea stands in stark contrast to the ideology of our host culture, which confuses “desires” and “needs” as being interchangeable. I also believe that this credo is born from a perspective of “more is better” and one can never have enough of a good thing—the lens through which today’s “Me Too” culture views the world.

In his conclusion, Rabbi Fohrman shares the sentiment that desire based on fullness dwarfs, in passion and intensity, need-based desires. As we considered in previous articles, it is only when we emulate Hakadosh Baruch Hu, in His love of mankind, do we come to understand that “true love” is far less about what “I” need and much more about what I can give to those I love and care about. Indeed, those who are wise enough to develop and build upon one’s passions and emotions via the positive perspective of “fullness,” knowing they have everything they need to complete their God-given missions, will have no trouble directing the overflow onto the others in their lives. Moreover, the simcha generated from believing that one has everything, and never feeling deprived or missing out on what one has given away, is one of the chief components in attaining and sustaining one’s simchat hachaim.

This same theme can also be found in a text in Parshat Noach. As it states: “…Noach built an altar to God…and brought burnt offerings upon the altar…God smelled the pleasing aroma…” (8:20-21). Rabbi Fohrman explains that, according to some, this is the first time we find the phrase “rei’ach nichoach,” a pleasant aroma that is pleasing to Hashem. David notes that the concept of rei’ach nichoach also becomes a recurrent phrase throughout the Torah in conjunction with sacrifices. He also reminds us that the interpretation “a pleasant aroma” reflects the homiletic meaning of wording. This literal interpretation of rei’ach nichoach follows the principle that the Torah is written in the language of man, for the sake of clarity, helping us to relate to God in a deeper way. At the same time, yet, we are also aware of the fundamental principle that God moves in the spiritual realm and does not literally engage in the actions of man, such as “smelling.” Yet, we are charged with deciphering the metaphoric value of this wording. Our David references the Malbim who explains that Noach brought the offering as a show of appreciation for Hashem’s gift of restoring the world. He also references our Sages who challenge the idea that Noach’s sacrifice was first, and compares it to the korban brought by Adam celebrating the creation of the world. In further deepening our understanding of animal sacrifice at this early stage of the world, he explains it as “the submission of the physical and the release of the more elevated spiritual essence, represented by the volatile aroma that wafts upwards—rei’ach, aroma, that is related to ru’ach (spirit).”

In both cases, this analysis of the wording helps us recognize Adam’s appreciation of God for creating the world, and Noach’s pure intentions of thanks for the salvation of the world at large and his family from destruction. Hashem was also “optimistic” and “pleased” with Noach’s seeming positive attitude and hope for the future and potential of mankind, as “flowing upward beyond the limitations of his physical being.” David connects this aspect of the theme by explaining that:“the main reason that man was created both from physical matter and spiritual form was to purify the physical and transform the physical into spiritual (Toldot Yaakov Yosef: Vayera:19d). This is also clearly an expression of the above theme of desire from a place of fullness rather than need; as well as the joy man can derive in going out of himself and sharing his accomplishments and acquisitions with God and mankind. He references Rabbi Yitzchak Twerski (Amittah shel Torah), who teaches us the following lesson:

“Throughout Parshat Noach, Hashem is mostly referred to as Elokim, a more universal and impersonal term. One exception is with regard to sacrifices where the Torah uses the term Hashem. The more intimate use of Hashem applies to Noach only with regard to His closeness to man as a result of Noach bringing offerings with pure intentions. The common denominator of this dvar Torah links the overflowing love that Hashem has to offer to humanity and, in return, our expression of gratitude and thanks to Him. Nowadays, without the Temple, we are left with the challenge to spiritually elevate ourselves and seek a closer relationship with Him through prayer, the study of Torah, doing kind deeds and the giving of charity.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sachs, referencing the insights of the Rav on the creation story, weighs in on this theme and also connects with the shift in the spiritual growth of Adam and Chava. In the first version, following their transgression against God, the wording focuses on Adam’s actions, which reflects his own needs and wants, his loneliness and his desire for Chava. This is expressed in her name, “Isha,” which is derived from “Ish” and suggests that she is an “extension” of man. In this version it is all about Adam, which explains his reaction of projecting the blame on the “wife Hashem gave him.” With these words, rather than admitting his part in the sin and asking for forgiveness, he indicts both Chava and God with the words “It was the wife You gave me” that caused me to sin. Similarly, Chava blamed the nachash, snake. Yet, in the second version, following their expulsion from Gan Eden, Adam gifts his wife with the name Chava, which is nothing less than an act of gratitude for the role she plays as “eim kol chai” (the mother of all living things). I believe in doing so he crosses the bridge of focusing on himself to acknowledging and validating Chava’s individuality as well as her unique contributions to mankind. In doing so his desires were based on “fullness” rather than “need,” on what one can “give” rather than what one can “take” or receive from others. This transition bears testimony to the considerable growth in his spiritual and emotional development. It also reflected his understanding the role shalom bayit has as the vessel that brings and sustains simchat hachaim into our lives.

In reading, processing and connecting David’s insights to this year’s theme of simchat hachaim, I can also visualize the big smile on David’s face as he was writing his message to family and friends. Indeed, he too, was such a role model in sustaining one’s simchat hachaim in the face of life’s challenges. David made the courageous decision to retire early from the job he loved. In doing so, he traded in the challenges of bureaucracy, which impacted on his ability to do his job with the standard of excellence he adhered to, and in doing so he spent the last years of his life by pouring out his love to his beloved wife, his children and grandchildren. In fact, his three years of retirement turned out to be the most fulfilling and satisfying of his life. Our hearts continue to go out to Eve, his children and grandchildren. Still, because David’s smile, which reflected his personality, was larger than life, it is so easy for those who knew him well to imagine him smiling down on us, making sure we are OK. We are so grateful to his children for the gift of his weekly divrei Torah through which he continues to influence and enhance the simchat hachaim of those he left behind.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA