“This week in His World” – by Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon 1
“Hurricane Harvey – Dancing in the Rain”
One of the most oft-cited verses in this week’s Parsha, Parshas Ki Savo, underscores an innovative concept which differs vastly from the secular world … “and you shall rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household …” (Devarim 26:11). Unlike the party line we hear from pop culture icons and the secular media, happiness is apparently a command, not an option.
The fact that the Creator of the world and everything in it can command us to embrace happiness must, by definition, mean that He created the tools or formula to obtain this illusive condition. This so-called formula was clearly on display for the world to see during the recent flooding of large parts of Houston during Hurricane Harvey.
News stations were filled with numerous stories of anonymous Good Samaritans who selflessly set out to help save the many homeless and trapped victims in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Almost all of these unsung heroes, in explaining their apparent motive for inexplicably putting their own lives at risk to help strangers, alluded to two main themes – the desire to want to give and/or the desire to find meaning – especially when people’s equanimity is challenged, as was the case with the recent hurricane and storms in Houston.
The question that I would like to explore is the connection between the themes that were repeated by these unsung heroes and the Torah definition of happiness.
For starters, it is easiest to appreciate the Torah concept of happiness by describing what it is not. Loshon Hakodesh was the language the Almighty used to create the world and everything in it. It follows that if a word is not utilized in the Torah, the concept that the word supposedly describes, does not exist. With that in mind, it should be noted that there is no word for “fun” in Loshon Hakodesh. Clearly the command to be happy does not connote the transient emotions of bliss or fun. From a Torah perspective, simcha is not an emotion that one can seek out, but rather is a byproduct of giving and living a meaningful life. Seen in this light, it is completely understandable that when people are shocked out of their routine of functioning like automatons, the existential desire to want to feel that one is making a difference and living a life that will have a long term legacy, results in the kind of benevolence that Hurricane Harvey spawned.
The Torah perspective of simcha, and the fact that simcha has its source in giving and growing is spelled out by numerous Torah luminaries. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the Hebrew words simcha and tsmicha, meaning ‘growth,’ have similar phonetic pronunciations. It follows that happiness comes as a result of a person growing towards his spiritual potential. The Baal Shem Tov points out that the letters of the Hebrew word b’simcha can be rearranged to spell machshava, (i.e.) ‘thought,’ emphasizing that happiness depends not on one’s situation, but upon the way that one views it.
In expounding on the fact that true simcha can only be attained within the four corners of the Torah, this weeks’ parsha goes even further. In the midst of the rebuke the Torah gives us a deeper insight into the cause of all the terrible punishments enumerated – “since you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy and goodness of heart … from rov kol.”(Devarim, 28:47).
The Arizal explains this verse by saying that the Torah is saying that retribution will befall the Jewish People when, while mitzvoth may generate a certain degree of happiness, our main joy is not derived from observing the Torah but rather from the joy of ‘rov kol‘ – i.e. – all other sources of happiness
The rebuke contained in Parshas Ki Savo is a stark reminder to any so-called Torah observant Jew that it is not enough to merely observe the mitzvoth, but that it must be the sole driving force in our lives. Honor, power, money and any other ‘pleasure’ are all illusionary sources of meaning.
As we count down the days to Rosh Hashanah, when all of our lives hang in the balance, perhaps one of the important life lessons we can all learn from those in Houston that were given the humbling perspective after losing all of their material possessions that, at the end of the day, the things that are truly important are our closest relationships and the ultimate purpose for life’s journey, which no amount of money can buy.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon is a Sir Abe Bailey Fellow, Fulbright Scholar and graduate of the Harvard Law School. Chanan has spent most of his career in the high end of the financial service industry. Chanan can best be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.