Torah Study (this Shabbat morning)

One of the themes in the Book of Leviticus is the holiness of God. God calls Godself ‘holy’ numerous times in the book, as in this week’s parashah: “For I, Adonai, am holy …” What does it mean to say to God as part of our daily prayer: “You are holy” —  especially if at that moment, your relationship with God is not so tight?

Come join with us about 9:30 am this Shabbat morning when we usually arrive at Torah study as we consider a strategy for reaching God in those moments when we do  not feel a closeness to God.

Minutes of Torah

The Jewish spiritual journey often proceeds from grief to joy. This week in parshat Emor, we witness this process in the cycle of the festival seasons — particularly the period in which we are now immersed: the counting of the Omer each night during the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot.

This week we read for the first time in Torah, the sacred times of the Jewish calendar: Shabbat and the Festivals. Of these, only Sukkot is described in terms of evoking emotion — specifically, joy — in its celebration. In a later telling of the Festivals in Torah, we are also “commanded” to rejoice on Shavuot as well.

Taken together, these descriptions of the calendar point towards an ongoing cycle which leads to a stage of joy. Thus, the practice we are currently counting the Omer between Passover and Shavuot is part of the process of moving in the direction of joy.

But can one prescribe or dictate an emotional state? Last week, in parshat Kedoshim, the same question arose when the Torah warned against bearing grudges and instead ‘commanded’ that we love our neighbor.

What does the Torah mean by ‘joy’ and how can we instill it within ourselves?

The Hebrew word for ‘joy’ only appears a single time in each of the books of Torah. Ironically, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, known for  cynicism, it appears frequently. What is it about the futility and pointlessness of life — the central themes of the Book of Ecclesiastes — with its resulting awareness of the transitory nature of our lives, which makes its message so ‘joyous’?

But maybe it is the knowledge that however long we live, we know we will one day die. And that our lives are a mere microsecond in the history of the universe. The cosmos lasts forever while we, living, breathing mortals, are a mere fleeting breath.

And yet, despite the apparent pointlessness of life, Ecclesiastes repeatedly exhorts us to practice joy. For example, “there is nothing better for people than to rejoice and do good while they live.” Further, God “commends rejoicing in life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and rejoice.” And finally, “however many years one may live, rejoice in them all.”

Perhaps because of our deep awareness of the transient nature of life, Ecclesiastes finds meaning in joy. Our awareness of the impermanence of life demands that we try to experience joy now, and to continue for as long as we can, for that is the length of time that we can be assured of our presence in this world’s existence.

And you have a subject of ‘joy’ staring you in the face so to speak, 24/7 — YOU! Think of all the people that you have shared life’s existence with, and who are no longer here. But you are.

Is that enough for you to have ‘joy’?

And your present existence is accompanied by the most amount of wisdom that you have developed until this part of your life, and that you can apply to every life situation that arises, including the one that will occur at the end of this sentence.

Is that enough for ‘joy’?

Recognition of the presence of ‘joy’ and how easily it is to be found in our world allows us to readily understand the teaching of Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot:

“Who is rich? One who rejoices in one’s current portion in life.”

The availability of events in our lives that will generate this type of response is illustrated in the following story:

There was a shoemaker described as ‘simple,’ who always rejoiced in every aspect of the shoemaking experience even though he made inferior products and earned less money than his competitors. When his wife pointed out to him how much better the other shoemakers were doing, he replied, “What do I care about that? That is their work, and this is my work! Why must we think about others? … If I make a clear profit, what do I care?”

He was thus always filled with joy and happiness. And you, too, can have the same level of joy with everything that you do.

In this seven week period of counting the Omer, may we understand the process of counting each day up to Shavuot as leading us, step by step, towards a fuller understanding of living, in a constant state of joy. May our day-by-day, moment-by-moment, experience of life reveal the amazingly simple, but real, joy in our being connected in a profound web of connectedness with each other through time and space.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav Julius

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