Re’eh 5777 – The Mitzvah of Finding Joy

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Americans as a group tend to be an optimistic people. This has been a salient trait of Americans throughout our history. Heck, our founders and first citizens must have been incredibly optimistic to put up with what they had to put up with. Not only do Americans generally look forward to the future, but some of our politicians have made it their mantra to “Never look back!” As we will see, though, this is not the Jewish way.

In my favorite magazine, the Atlantic, a Pew study was cited that not only showed the general optimism of Americans compared with people in other countries, but we also bucked another trend. While the importance of religion is generally inversely correlated with the wealth of a country, the U.S. is just the opposite. Though relatively wealthy compared to most all of the other countries in the study, more Americans state that religion plays an important part of their lives than in other countries with comparable wealth.

So optimism and the importance of religion are common features and traits of many Americans.

This coming week, we will be granted an opportunity to tie our American optimism with our Jewish faith, and to start anew. This week, we observe Rosh Chodesh Elul, heralding the coming of our annual period of self reflection. Yes, the High Holidays are coming to a shul near you. While this is our chance to steer ourselves in the direction of the person we always wanted to be, the mandate of Elul does not, alas, involve wiping the slate clean or forget-ting past mistakes. Not so fast! In keeping with the Jewish parental tradition of lay-ing on the guilt, it is about confronting who we  have been, so that we can grow into being a better person.

As a way into Elul, the first three verses of today’s parashah lay out for us in stark terms that we are supposed to observe Gd’s commandments.

“See, this day I set before you a blessing and a curse: blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the Lord your Gd, which I enjoin upon you this day. And curse, if you do not listen to the  commandments of the Lord your Gd but turn away from the path that I enjoin you.”

But there are a couple of really disagreeable segments of the parashah such as in-structions to kill those plundered by the Israelites in their quest to conquer and inhabit the Promised Land. These portions and the curses as I just read are sometimes pointed to by nonjews when they depict our Bible as be-ing filled with punishment and violence.

Now as you know by now, I don’t believe that tangible punishment awaits us if we sin. Nor do I believe that we will be rewarded in any tangible way for performing good deeds. That’s simply not my theology. And neither I nor, I suspect, most of you, believe that sinners must be killed on the spot, as our Torah commands. So I have a problem in using those 3 verses as I enter Elul and as I think about my own life. We each must find our own way in which the commandments speak to us, in-formed by our people’s story, teachings and traditions.

And one of the key teachings for me in today’s parashah is that it tells us to find joy. In fact, the root of the Hebrew word for joy, (samech, mem, chof -simcha, right?) appears once in each of the first four books of the Torah. It is found 7 times in our parashah alone.

Some of you may remember a story I told sometime back – I was biking with Ephraim Weiss, Shelley and Simma’s son – mentoring him so he could get his Boy Scout merit badge. On one drizzly morning, I told him how great it was to be able to enjoy the sun. “The sun’s not out today, Dr. Roffman.” reported Ephraim. “Sure it is, Ephraim,” I said. “You just can’t see it because it’s behind the clouds.

In Judaism, in addition to enjoying the creature comforts we might strive for, we are taught to cultivate an awareness of the sources of wonder and joy, and to become sensitized to and enjoy those things that can’t be measured or quantified. This was what I hoped to convey to Ephraim.

The task to change some of our traits, as Elul implores us to do, might be tough. But while we embark on the difficult task of self-improvement, appreciating the joys and wondrous things that happen to us should be easy. And as we are taught this week, it’s also a mitzvah. Our Torah has many dictates and laws that might seem arbitrary, unimportant and even disagreeable. Make no mistake, though, our teachings are a blueprint for living and for finding fulfillment. For living a life that matters. And finding joy is a big part of that.

As a bookend to the verses I read at the very beginning of the parashah, our parashah concludes with the “rules of giving” that was to apply to sarifices we were to bring Gd on each of our 3 pilgramage holidays – Pesach, Sha-vuot and Succot. I would posit that these rules apply not only to the 3 festivals, and not only to Gd. In our contemporary world, we don’t actually believe that Gd needs our gifts. And we have certainly and thankfully given up the practice of sacrifices long ago. But our living Torah dictates that we use the guidelines as a template for giving in general.

The rules are, first, that we must not come to the table, as it were, empty handed. We must be appreciative of our blessings and we must be generous in return. The second rule is that we must give according to our own gift – that is we are to use our own unique attributes and talents – something that reflects our own abilities, skills and passions. We all carry a spark of the divine within us and we are all unique.

So Gd wants us to be who we are – special in our own way. The unique gifts we give to make the world better are a recognition that we are obligated to fight social conformity and mindless habit. And given that we each carry a spark of the Divine within us, it could be argued that gifts that we give to others – tangible or intangible – are in fact, gifts to Gd.

Elul is about first remembering – who we really have been, and second – looking ahead to who we want to be and to what we really want to accomplish. By under-standing our story as Jews and coming to terms with our past, we can navigate to a just and righteous path. In this way, we approach Elul in a way that is very different from the stereotypically American way of never looking back that I mentioned ear-lier.

As we begin the Season of Repentance, may each of us be blessed with the strength to look at our lives anew, to feel and appreciate the joys that have been granted us, to discover and become who and what we should be, and to give our unique gifts to others and to the world. May we all emerge wiser and stronger when the shofar blast concludes our observance of Yom Kippur.

Shabbat Shalom