Serve With Gladness, Not Sadness By Eve Levy
The High Holiday season is, of course, replete with meaning. As we move from the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, through forgiveness on Yom Kippur, to rejoicing in God's presence through Sukkot, into Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, each stop offers unique opportunities for growth and connection.
The holidays also come with their challenges – sitting in synagogue for hours on end, fasting the entire Yom Kippur, all the countless hours of preparation and cooking. Kosher meat is expensive, tuition for Jewish day school is exorbitant and we kvetch as we shell out the dollars. We kvetch as we stand on our tired feet as we do what needs to be done to get ready for the holidays.
We believe we have every right to complain. Life is expensive and stressful as it is, but adding extra things on top of it all?! Oy vey Zmir! It is not always so easy to live a Jewish life. It takes sacrifice and commitement. I once told my rabbi that I dont think I am cut out for this lifestyle, to which he cryptically answered, "Then cut yourself out!" I didn't immediately understand his meaning, and it only became clear to me later. Let's discuss.
When my grandparents were living in the shtetl (poor village) in Eastern Europe, life was not easy. Compared to our lives today and all the convieniences we now have, it might be hard for us to fathom just how challanging life was. Food was scarce, medication was unreliable and hard to come by, and the living conditions left much to be desired (hint: no indoor plumbing!).
An often-heard Yiddish adage was "Iz shver zu zein a yid," which came with a heavy sigh. "It's hard to be a Jew." With this on their lips, it doesn't puzzle me that all four of my grandparents, along with many thousands of others, left behind the strong Jewish traditions of their parents and grandparents during those turbulent pre-war years.
Since the Holocaust, we have lost more than 4 million Jews to assimilation. We need to think long and hard about this. What message are we passing on to our children? Will they want anything to do with Judaism as we complain loudly about the synagogue dues, the cost of bar mitzvah lessons, the expense of Jewish camp, or putting money aside for tzedakah (charity), making Shabbat, the holidays, etc.
There are two times that curses are mentioned in the Torah, once in Parshat Bechukotai and another time here in this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tavo, when parts of the Torah are repeated by Moses just before his death. Ezra the Scribe ensured that this parsha would be read before Rosh Hashanah in order “to finish the year with its curses,” according to The Book of Our Heritage by Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov. “Let the old year and its curses come to an end. Let the new year and its blessings begin!"
It is written that all these curses – and they are really harsh things, things you wouldn’t wish on your worse enemy – will come upon us “because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant” (Deuteronomy 28: 47).
In other words, to make things better within the Jewish nation, we have to infuse joy in the home. This is how we pass on Judaism to the next generation. If all we do is complain and drag our feet, why should the next generation want any part of it? There are a lot of choices out there in the big world. Why would our children choose something so uncomfortable or difficult? This change of attitude is in our hands.
Happiness is a state of mind. It is not dependent on what we have. As is written in Ethics of Our Fathers, "Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot."
The woman sets the tone of the home. Our sages say that "Ishto zu beito (the woman is the home." Our mood affects the whole home. We are contageous! We need to overflow with happiness even when things may be difficult.
Rebbetzin Esther Yungries of blessed memory, about whom Ruchi Kovel wrote so beautifully in last week's newsletter, was a Holocaust survivor. She was once asked, “Where does your smile start, on your lips or in your heart?”
She thought about it for a moment and replied, “It must start on my lips, because in my heart sometimes things are not so good. I have fears. I am sometimes scared." She went on to say, “When we were in the cattle cars on the way to … Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp, my father pulled me and my siblings over to him and told us, if you can put a smile on your faces, my little kinderlach (children), you can lift the spirits of all the sad people around you.
"Do you think we were feeling in the mood to smile? But our dear father had asked us to smile and lift the spirits of our fellow Jews. How could we not fulfill his final request?”
There is an expression in Hebrew, Hachitoniut me'orrer et hapnimiut (the external wakes up the internal). Sometimes we just need to fake it 'til we make it. As my rabbi told me, I need to cut myself out, meaning my personal baggage!
I'm excited to take my kids shopping for new clothes for the High Holidays. Will it be costly? Yes! Will it be stressful? Very possibly! But most important, it will be an opportunity for me to show them how much I love them, love Judaism and am excited for the new year. If I can show them those things, then surely I am serving G-d with gladness and a full heart and demonstrating in my actions that living a Jewish lifestyle is worth every bit of effort.
May we be sealed and inscribed in the book of life and let the blessings shower down upon us all!
Eve Levy is a JWRP City Leader from Portland, Oregon.