Re’eh 5775  – Sowing the seeds of happiness and enjoying its fruit

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

A month or so ago, I was riding my bike with Ephraim Weiss. Ephraim is the 11-year-old son of Simma and Shelley Weiss, friends of our congregation. As some of you know, I’m mentoring him so he can get his Boy Scout merit badge in cycling. As we took a break on that cloudy, drizzly morning, I said how great it was to be able to enjoy the sun. He looked up at the clouds and drizzle. “The sun’s not out today, Dr. Roffman,” he said. I told him that we were indeed enjoying the sun that morning, we just couldn’t see it because it was behind clouds.

As we approach the High Holidays and our season of reflection, I would like use a central message of today’s parasha as a foundation for our own mediation, prayer and thought.

Judaism recognizes an attitude of joy and gratitude to be a pious response to the blessings in our lives. We are instructed numerous times in the Bible and in our liturgy to rejoice, to celebrate – our customs and traditions, our laws and rituals, the blessings in our lives. Today we chanted the joyous prayers of Hallel, to celebrate a new moon. A new moon – really?!?! But though it might seem a bit more than is warranted for such a common event, this reflects a mindset – a glass half-full instead of one half-empty. The Talmud teaches us to say 100 blessings a day, and in so doing, we are taught to appreciate the mundane. To do so requires practice and sometimes a paradigm shift in our approach.

Instead of thinking about clouds and drizzle, my lesson to Ephraim was to appreciate just being able to get out on his bike and ride! Of course, I recognize the limits to this – some things don’t have a bright side, and even on that morning, when it started to rain more heavily, my post-Ephraim ride with my friend Greg was curtailed. But for most of life’s situations, the bad stuff can at least be mitigated in some way by that for which we should be grateful. So how do we cultivate this approach in our daily lives? One avenue is through our relationships with others.

Martin Buber was a professor at Hebrew University. His basic teaching was that there are 2 basic models with which we interact with other people and with the world as a whole. One is what he calls “I-it.” We interact with an object or a person so we can get something back in return. Perform well at work, get a raise or a promotion. Pay money for a movie, be entertained. Be pleasant to someone, they interact with you in a favorable way. Most of our daily interactions are of the I-it type.

In what he calls an I-thou relationship, on the other hand, there is a deep and caring connection. This is where Judaism finds holiness. Dating might begin in an I-it relationship, but if it evolves into an I-thou one, there is a chance for a long-term bond that can become a source of great joy and fulfillment. Our interpersonal relationships have the potential for holiness. For wonder and the giving of self. Jewish texts are replete with teachings of the holiness of special interpersonal bonds. These I-thou relationships involve not only romantic ones, but those with friends, and even with nature. During my recent trip to Alaska with Nancy, during a group discussion, I spoke of how blessed I felt to be able to witness the majesty of the natural world.

Buber taught that a derivative of the central teachings of Judaism is to remain open to the possibility of these relationships and of wonder and to cultivate those moments all the time. With others, with the things around us. These moments and the possibilities of this cultivation can’t always be planned. But we must be prepared for them and encourage them. Some people go through their whole lives without such encounters; others constantly search for them, and build on them. These I-thou relationships are a potential source of much joy, but they don’t happen spontaneously or without the proper frame of mind.

Another way to fulfill the mitzvah of finding joy in our lives, as written in today’s parasha can be exemplified by a talk given last year by NY Times columnist David Brooks, entitled, “Are you living your resume or your eulogy? Our resume includes our titles, the positions we held in our jobs and how we spend much of our day. But our eulogy won’t discuss most of this. No one will ultimately care that we achieved Gold status on our credit cards because of all the travel we did for work. And while our life’s work will certainly be listed in due course, what ultimately matters will be not our I-it moments, but rather our I-thou moments. What kind of friend, parent, presence in the community were we? Were we there to help others? This is what will be talked about in our eulogy. Did we call? Did we care? Did we remember? Did we make time? While I was undergoing chemotherapy some months back, I can’t begin to tell you how much it meant when people sent even short notes and texts telling me they were thinking of me and pulling for me to heal.

Resume-building too often comes at the expense of our eulogy. As Jews, we are, of course commanded to work, to provide, to, “subdue the earth,” as is written in Genesis. But if we don’t love, live, encounter, and create I-thou moments as bonds, we are only, in the words of Rabbi Brad Artson, an agent for the transfer of assets.

The President of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, writes about how we should strive for “abundance without attachment.” We all have learned that our most cherished memories are not about things but about experiences. Material pleasures are great, but our ultimate happiness and satisfaction with our lives will be determined by things that cannot be quantified or counted. I distinctly remember many of my experiences with Leah during her childhood, but have no recollection of what brand of jeans she wore.

In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s book, “God in Search of Man,” he writes, “If the world is only power to us and we are all absorbed in a gold rush, then the only God we may come upon is the golden calf.”

Today’s parasha has many dictates and laws that sometimes might seem arbitrary. Some years ago, I had a discussion with Rabbi Glickman about this and other, similar portions of the Torah. Are those who follow its ways necessarily happier? Are they rewarded in a material sense? Of course not.

Make no mistake, though. The teachings are a blueprint for living and for finding fulfillment. For living a life that matters. One that includes family closeness, enriched by numerous I-thou moments, and rewarded by inner peace and tranquility.

So in addition to enjoying the creature comforts we strive for, we are taught in Judaism to cultivate an awareness of sources of wonder and joy, and become sensitized to and enjoy those things that can’t be measured. We are taught to create and appreciate I-Thou moments. A midrash teaches that after we die, we will be called on to account for all the pleasures in life that we did not realize and fully appreciate. At the same time, Maimonides taught that we need to assure the peace and comfort of the powerless, the poor and the stranger. True joy reaches beyond the narrow boundaries of the self and embraces others as well.

In Judaism, it’s a great mitzvah to find joy. And to a large extent, fulfilling this mitzvah is in our hands.