Parashat Ki Tavo: High or happy?

Yes, we're commanded to rejoice on our festivals, but in general we're commanded to be holy, not necessarily happy.

torah scroll 88 248 (photo credit: courtesy)
torah scroll 88 248
(photo credit: courtesy)
Since when is God so concerned that we be happy? Yes, we're commanded to rejoice on our festivals, but in general we're commanded to be holy, not necessarily happy. (Lev. 19:2). A number of years ago, a popular inscription on T-shirts was "Don't worry, be happy." I always thought that the best illustration would be Elsie the Contented Cow, chewing her cud with a beatific smile, totally oblivious to what was going on around her. If memory serves, King David declared, "Happy is the person who is constantly fearful." Perhaps we ought change the T-shirt inscription to read "Worry, be happy." And if the desired goal is indeed to be happy, what does one say to the teenager who argues that marijuana is much better than any food because it gives him a happy "high" without causing much brain damage? Would Judaism justify his argument? Maimonides, in his unique way, provides the significance of Jewish happiness from a biblical and talmudic perspective. In his Laws of the Festivals (Chapter 6, Law 20), he writes as follows: "When an individual eats and drinks and rejoices on the festival, he should not become overly involved in wine and playful laughter and levity… that is not happiness, but debauchery and foolishness. We were commanded… concerning happiness which contains the service of the Creator of all things, as it is written, 'all these curses shall befall you because you did not serve the Lord your God in joy and happiness.'" Maimonides goes on (Laws of Lulav, Chapter 8, Law 15) to say: "The happiness which should cause an individual to be happy in the performance of a commandment and in loving God is a great [i.e. difficult] act of service." Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav teaches: "It is a great commandment to be happy." I believe Maimonides would respond "it is a difficult service to be happy." What does this mean? Let us look to wine, which the Bible considers a source of joy ("Wine gladdens the heart of the human being" - Psalms 104:5), and which the sages of the Talmud consider a primary expression of sanctity, kedusha, since they ordain a blessing over wine, kiddush, as the proper way to inaugurate each Sabbath and festival day. Why wine? Not only because it produces a feeling of "high" happiness, but primarily because it is so difficult to produce. Not only must the grapevines be planted, tended and nurtured, but then the grapes must be harvested, separated from their stems, pressed and precisely fermented. It is because of the difficult work involved in elevating the grape to the status of wine that - unlike most other fruits - our sages command a different blessing over wine than over grapes; the latter is the generic borei pri ha'etz (to the Creator of the fruit of the tree), whereas the former is borei pri hagafen (to the Creator of the fruit of the vine). And it is precisely because of the exertion, precision, ingenuity and expertise involved in wine production that wine became the consummate expression not only of happiness but also of sanctity. My revered teacher Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik has often taught that sanctity can only come with human input, service and commitment. Bread requires three biblical blessings and one rabbinical blessing to be recited after it is consumed - unlike fruits, vegetables or meat - because bread cannot be produced without 11 back-breaking and scientifically engineered processes which create the "staff of life" from the lowly grain of wheat. Mount Sinai enjoyed only temporary sanctity; as long as the Divine Presence was speaking the Ten Words, the mountain was holy; once the Divine Presence left, the holiness left, and therefore we are now not even sure which mountain it is. Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount), on the other hand, enjoys eternal sanctity, and remains the holiest spot on earth even today. Why is Mount Moriah on a higher level than Mount Sinai, the place from which the Torah was divinely revealed? Once again, because although God gave us the Torah on Mount Sinai, Abraham was ready to sacrifice his beloved son to God on Mount Moriah. Mount Moriah expressed human commitment unto death, and therefore only Mount Moriah is blessed with eternal sanctity. The grape is worked, pressed, even trod upon and squeezed, fermented and perfected, after which it can be held aloft and used in a ritual of hallowed happiness. True holiness and joy can only come after hard work in the service of the Divine. It is hard work to serve God in happiness. One memorable Simhat Torah holiday, when I was still a student at Yeshiva University, we were invited to the home of Rav Polyoff for kiddush. Rav Polyoff was a venerable yeshiva head, aged and almost totally blind, who knew many tractates of the Talmud and their early commentaries by heart. We arrived after having attended at least six previous kiddushim, a bit wobbly and fuzzy-minded. The head of the yeshiva sensed our condition and explained to us - as his dvar torah (Torah thought) - the difference between the drinking that brings hallowed happiness and the drinking that causes only destructive drunkenness. "If you feel happy, even high, at your accomplishment which fills you with pride and joy, and you wish to express that happiness with wine, then drinking will be sacred; but if you feel empty inside, disappointed in yourself and uncertain as to your abilities and worth, and are looking to the wine to give you a 'happy high,' then drinking can only lead to drunkenness." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.