Simcha as joyful gratitude-An essential religious sentiment
A little less than 60 years ago I was invited to deliver a sermon in the synagogue of my youth on the Sabbath of the intermediate days of Succot. I was a student at Yeshiva University, and had decided that my life’s goal was to become a rabbi. I was deeply honored by the invitation, excited but very anxious. Not only would the rabbi be present but family and many friends of my childhood and youth as well.
I can clearly recall the sermon’s theme-the meaning of the “ joy of the mitzvah” in Judaism. It was based on a Talmudic passage : “The Divine Presence ( Shechinah) rests neither in the midst of sadness, nor in the midst of idleness, nor in the midst of frivolity, nor in the midst of levity, nor in the midst of chitchat, nor in the midst of inane talk, but only in the midst of the joy in performing a mitzvah.” (Shabbat 30b)
Thinking back I’m amused by my naive, idealistic ardor which led to a strident castigation of those who observe Judaism only at certain times, and not in a consistent manner. For example, sadness-death and misfortune; will elicit a religious response; or celebrating a connection to Judaism exclusively at moments of levity and frivolity-Bar Mitzvahs etc. I devoted little attention to the climactic phrase of the passage-simcha shel mitzvah-the rejoicing of or in the performance of the mitzvah. It was easier to be critical than to offer a meaningful way to appropriate Judaism or a religious way of life.
On the surface the meaning of this phrase-simcha shel mitzvah- suggests the essentiality of joy when engaged in performing religious acts.The question naturally arises: What is the nature of this joy, of “simchah?” Does joy not contain elements of delight, pleasure, gaiety even levity? After all, the Hebrew word for levity or laughter is ‘sechok,’ and it is referred to positively in the Talmudic section mentioned above quoting Kohelet-Ecclesiastes: “ I said of laughter it is to be praised!”(Chpt.2, 2) While joy in itself is commendable while performing a mitzvah, is it humanly possible to feel so under all circumstances of religious activity? After all, there are times of sadness and struggle, sickness and hardship, that make it impossible for any empathic person to rejoice! Can we discover joy in any and all mitzvoth?
I believe we can if we understand the notion of ‘simchah’ in a uniquely Jewish way. The emphasis on rejoicing on the festivals, especially the occasions of pilgrimage which celebrate harvest and the receiving of God’s gifts , can only be grasped if we consider gratitude as the core sentiment contained in the rejoicing experience. In other words, rejoicing in the holy act embraces feeling grateful for the opportunity, privilege and gift associated with the performance of the noble deed. Not a few view religious responsibilities as burdensome; it is not uncommon for many to complain about the arduousness of the regimen of mitzvot in Judaism.
The festival of Succot, a season of rejoicing lends itself easily and seamlessly to the experience of joy-when we are surrounded with bounty, relieved of worry that there wont be enough to eat during the rainy winter months and make a journey to Jerusalem without the usual challenges of work, surrounded by family and the beauty of nature in the forms of a succah and the lulav and etrog-gratitude flows smoothly in our hearts and we rejoice thankfully.
Succot is the Season of our Rejoicing precisely because it attempts to elevate natural joy and celebration to a level of greater spirituality, one that evokes consciousness of a Source of All life,resulting in an attitude of gratitude and thanksgiving.
Thus, the unique and specific occasion of Succot can irrigate our souls to rejoice in the performance of the “good deed” any time of the year. In the midst of this kind of ‘simcha,’ rejoicing, there is space in our hearts open and receptive to receive the Divine Presence.