Sunday, December 9, 2012

Siyyum on Berakhot – True Happiness

Today I made a siyyum on Berakhot, dedicated in memory of my paternal grandfather, Mort Miller, אברהם מאיר בן נחמן אלתר ע״ה, who passed away on א׳ חנוכה ה׳תשס״ז; and my maternal grandmother, Tillie Hasson, מזלטוב בת משה ע״ה, who passed away on א׳ טבת ה׳תשנ״ט. Because the custom on my mother’s side is to say kaddish from the Shabbat before the anniversary, both my parents are saying kaddish today.

Here’s the speech I gave this morning at Yeshivat Hakotel.

Both of my grandparents I’m remembering today were known for their optimism. They grew up during the Great Depression, and both lost their fathers at a young age, but they worked hard and looked for the best in life. My grandmother had the motto, “Always be happy.” Even when life seems tough or unfair, we have no excuse not to be happy with all our blessings.

A number of passages in Berakhot teach the lesson of optimism. In particular, the Mishnah on 54a says we must bless God for both the good and the bad that He gives us. The Gemara on 60b gives the example of Rabbi Akiva, who demonstrated his faith that “all God does is for good.”

But I want to talk about a gemara that seems to have an opposing message.

The Mishnah on 30b says that one must only pray with koved rosh, a serious mindset. After some give and take, the Gemara finds a Biblical source for this idea, and then tells several stories about how happiness must be reined in by fear.

Here’s the full passage, followed by English:

משנה. אין עומדין להתפלל אלא מתוך כובד ראש. חסידים הראשונים היו שוהין שעה אחת ומתפללין, כדי שיכוונו לבם לאביהם שבשמים. אפילו המלך שואל בשלומו לא ישיבנו, ואפילו נחש כרוך על עקבו לא יפסיק.

גמרא. מנא הני מילי? אמר רבי אלעזר; דאמר קרא: +שמואל א' א'+ והיא מרת נפש. - ממאי? דילמא חנה שאני, דהות מרירא לבא טובא! אלא אמר רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא מהכא: +תהלים ה'+ ואני ברב חסדך אבוא ביתך אשתחוה אל היכל קדשך ביראתך. - ממאי, דילמא דוד שאני, דהוה מצער נפשיה ברחמי טובא! - אלא אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי, מהכא: +תהלים כ"ט+ השתחוו לה' בהדרת קדש, אל תקרי בהדרת אלא בחרדת. - ממאי? דילמא לעולם אימא לך, הדרת ממש, כי הא דרב יהודה הוה מציין נפשיה והדר מצלי! - אלא אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק מהכא: +תהלים ב'+ עבדו את ה' ביראה וגילו ברעדה.

מאי וגילו ברעדה? אמר רב אדא בר מתנא אמר רבה במקום גילה שם תהא רעדה. אביי הוה יתיב קמיה דרבה, חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא, אמר: וגילו ברעדה כתיב! אמר ליה: אנא תפילין מנחנא. רבי ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דרבי זירא, חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא, אמר ליה, +משלי י"ד+ בכל עצב יהיה מותר, כתיב! - אמר ליה: אנא תפילין מנחנא. מר בריה דרבינא עבד הלולא לבריה, חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קבדחי טובא,

אייתי כסא דמוקרא, בת ארבע מאה זוזי, ותבר קמייהו, ואעציבו. רב אשי עבד הלולא לבריה, חזנהו לרבנן דהוו קא בדחי טובא, אייתי כסא דזוגיתא חיורתא ותבר קמייהו, ואעציבו. אמרו ליה רבנן לרב המנונא זוטי בהלולא דמר בריה דרבינא: לישרי לן מר! - אמר להו: ווי לן דמיתנן, ווי לן דמיתנן! אמרי ליה: אנן מה נעני בתרך? - אמר להו: הי תורה והי מצוה דמגנו עלן? אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחאי: אסור לאדם שימלא שחוק פיו בעולם הזה, שנאמר: +תהלים קכ"ו+ אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשוננו רנה, אימתי - בזמן שיאמרו בגוים הגדיל ה' לעשות עם אלה. אמרו עליו על ריש לקיש, שמימיו לא מלא שחוק פיו בעולם הזה מכי שמעה מרבי יוחנן רביה.

English translation, based on Soncino:

Mishnah: One may only stand up to say tefillah in a serious frame of mind. [...]

Gemara: What is the [Biblical] source of this rule? — [...] Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: We learn it from here: “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling.” What is meant by “rejoice with trembling”? — R. Adda b. Mattena said in the name of Rab: In the place where there is rejoicing there should also be trembling.

Abaye was sitting before Rabbah, who observed that he seemed very merry. He said: It is written, And rejoice with trembling? — He replied: I am wearing tefillin.

Throughout this aggadta, the word used for “merry” also means “laughing,” which I’ll highlight later.

Continuing on:

R. Jeremiah was sitting before R. Zera who saw that he seemed very merry. He said to him: It is written, In all sorrow there is profit? — He replied: I am wearing tefillin.

Mar the son of Rabina made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious.

R. Ashi made a marriage feast for his son. He saw that the Rabbis were growing very merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it before them and they became serious.

Some aharonim ask how these rabbis could smash their expensive cups. Isn’t that bal tashhit, wastefulness? My grandmother would have appreciated that question. They give various answers.

Continuing on:

The Rabbis said to R. Hamnuna Zuti at the wedding of Mar the son of Rabina: Please sing us something. He sang to them: Woe to us, we’re going to die! Woe to us, we’re going to die!

The thought of such a song at a wedding made everyone at the siyyum laugh. I saw that coming, so I had a mock rebuke ready: “Hey, you shouldn’t be laughing.” More laughter. Shoot.


They said to him: What shall we respond after you? He said to them: Where is the Torah and where are the mitzvot that will protect us!

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: It is forbidden to a man to fill his mouth with laughter in this world, because it says, “Then will our mouth be filled with laughter and our tongue with singing.” When will that be? At the time when “they shall say among the nations, The Lord hath done great things with these.” It was related of Resh Lakish that he never again filled his mouth with laughter in this world after he heard this saying from R. Johanan his teacher.

So we’re not allowed to be too happy? As a rabbi of mine has asked more than once—what kind of a morbid religion is this?

Here’s how I would read this Gemara optimistically.

The Gemara criticizes excessive laughter. What’s the downside of laughter? I can think of two things. First, the joy of laughter is something external to you. You hear a joke, you see someone slip on a banana peel, and that causes you to laugh. Second, laughter is out of your control. When something strikes you as funny, the laugh comes out by itself, without a conscious decision on your part.

True happiness, the kind that Judaism expects from us, is internal. It’s something we foster with our conscious thought. We have control over our happiness.

That’s why tefillin permitted the amora’im to be excessively merry. Tefillin symbolize control, that our thoughts and actions are directed to God. That is also why the amora’im were distrubed by excessive merriment at weddings; they saw a loss of control.

Now, to connect the theme of optimism to Hanukkah. A freylichen Chanukah, as they say!

The theme of Hanukkah is hallel ve-hoda’ah, praise and thanks, according to Shabbat 21b. The Rambam records this in Hilkhot Megillah ve-Hanukkah 3:3 as simhah ve-hallel, celebration and praise. Either way, the point here is optimism.

I want to look at the beginning of the haftarah for the Shabbat of Hanukkah. The haftarah was chosen because of Zekharyah’s vision of a menorah in Zekharyah 4:1–7. But the haftarah starts much earlier, from 2:14:

רָנִּי וְשִׂמְחִי בַּת צִיּוֹן כִּי הִנְנִי בָא וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְתוֹכֵךְ נְאֻם ה׳:
Be joyful and happy, daughter of Zion, for here I come and shall dwell within you, says the Lord.

I think that this verse captures the essence of Hanukkah. Our source of joy is exactly the point of conflict between Hellenism and Judaism. As related in Bereshit Rabbah, the Greeks demanded that the Jews deny having a “a portion with the God of Israel”:

וחושך – זה גלות יון שהחשיכה עיניהם של ישראל בגזירותיהן, שהיתה אומרת להם, כתבו על קרן השור שאין לכם חלק באלהי ישראל

The Greek philosophers believed in God, but they understood Him to be detached from the world because of His perfection. This contradicts everything Judaism believes about God, obviously. That is why the miracle of Hanukkah happened specifically with the light of the menorah, which symbolizes God’s presence among the Jewish People, as stated on Menahot 86b:

שלחן בצפון ומנורה בדרום – א"ר זריקא אמר ר' אלעזר לא לאכילה אני צריך ולא לאורה אני צריך ויעש לבית חלוני שקופים אטומים תנא שקופין [מבפנים] ואטומים [מבחוץ] לא לאורה אני צריך מחוץ לפרכת העדות באהל מועד עדות הוא לכל באי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל ואם תאמר לאורה אני צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות הוא לכל באי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל מאי עדותה אמר רבא זה נר מערבי שנותנין בה שמן כנגד חברותיה וממנה היה מדליק ובה היה מסיים:

Last night I had the opportunity to tour the archaeological digs around the Western Wall with Rabbi Mordechai “Suli” Eliyav, the director of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. He’s the man with the big gray beard in all the photos of high-profile visits to the Kotel (e.g., here and here). Right now they are greatly expanding the underground excavations, which in a couple years will be open to the public. Our tour had to climb around a lot of scaffolding and construction, and what we saw was incredible. I can’t describe it. Come in two years (or why not sooner?) and see it yourself.

Rabbi Eliyav emphasized again and again the miracle that’s here every day in front of our eyes. In some places you can see every layer of history, from the Mamluks, Crusaders, Byzantines, Romans, and going all the way back to the First Temple era. Everyone but Israel came, left, and is now only remembered by the history books. Rabbi Eliyav tells his foreign visitors how each layer of past civilization in Jerusalem represents hundreds of years, more time than any current government in the world has existed. Could they imagine, if their culture were supplanted by another, that anyone would hold their memory dear a few hundred years later? And here the Jewish people never let go of Jerusalem, and now, after nineteen centuries, we are back.

May we all appreciate the miracles in our lives, and merit to build true internal happiness.

1 comment:

ANM said...

Yasher Koach and Mazal Tov, Rafi!