Rabbi Label Lam
And Some Good Food, Too!
Why is this time of the year titled "The Time of Our Happiness"? What's so
happy about braving the chilly elements while sitting in a flimsy booth for
7 plus days? If it would be advertised in some travel magazine as a family
vacation package of a lifetime, with pictures of a crowded Sukkah, I'm
afraid not too many people would nibble. Most people would be more enticed
by luxurious settings, Jacuzzis, tennis, and tons of fun for kids of all
ages. Yet, we are told to go into the Sukkah and be happy.
The Mishne in Pirke' Avos (6:4) seems to make a strange statement, "This is
the way of Torah: Bread with salt you will eat with a measure of water. On
the ground you will sleep. A life of austerity you will live. And in the
Torah you will toil. If you will do so, happy you will be and it will be
good for you. Happy will you be in this world and it will be good for you
in the next world!"
Questions! 1) When was a vow of poverty instituted as prior requirement to
learning Torah? Since when have we been an ascetic cult? 2) Why does the
Mishne promise happiness in this world? We can imagine that somehow through
self-denial a person can achieve a degree of good for himself in the next
world but how does that match up with a promise of happiness here and now?
Reb Simcha Zissel, the Alter from Kelm highlighted a key phrase that may
just open this statement to its true intent. The words, "if you do so." are
critical. The Torah is not advocating poverty as a way of life. The Mishne
is saying that the Torah has the ability to promote the most exalted
happiness even under the most severe circumstances of life. This can only
be appreciated "if you are the one doing so"! A portrait of the inner life
does not lend itself to the superficial gaze of the casual on looker.
Early in the morning I remarked to a study partner my amazement that the
Vilna Gaon slept only two hours in a twenty-four period. How could he do
it? My friend corrected me and my misrepresentation of the facts, "It's not
that he slept only two hours. He wasn't into sleep deprivation. He was
involved with learning Torah twenty-two hours in a day! The joy of Mitzvos
filled up his waking hours."
If one is tired while driving there is good piece of advice to eat or drink
something. Very rarely do people fall asleep while eating ice cream. The
Vilna Gaon was as if eating ice cream all day, and this delight displaced
the desire for sleep. Now go and explain that to someone that never had
that level of experience in learning. That's the challenge of the Mishne!
There is a profound difference between "happiness" and "fun". When we are
screaming with the crowd at a ball game or sailing down the steep section
of a roller coaster it can be said at that moment, "we are having fun", but
are we "happy"? When crammed into the back of a plane pressed up against a
window for a long 10 ½ hour ride only to find out that no kosher meal was
reserved, we are not likely having "fun". However, in that sardine scene if
we are ever conscious that in a number of hours we will be in the "Holy
Land" and shortly thereafter at the Western Wall even though we are not
having fun, as we inch closer to the goal, we may still be experiencing
happiness. Importantly, nobody said that a Sukkah, like a plane-ride, can't
have a little leg-room and some good food too!
Text Copyright 2003 Rabbi Label Lam and Project Genesis, Inc.