All the festivals are occasions of simcha. But only Sukkos is known as zman simchaseinu – the time of our rejoicing. Sounds good. Yet attaining that state of simcha may be even harder than the intensive self-scrutiny required during the Days of Repentance.
In the gentile world, there is an extensive literature on the "blues" that strikes precisely around the holidays that are supposed to be happiest times of the year. Some are brought low by the suspicion that everybody but them is having a wonderful time. Others are reminded of their solitude during so-called family holidays.
I suspect that something of the same phenomenon also exists among some religious Jews during Sukkos: They feel none of the simcha that they repeatedly proclaim in their davening to be instrinsic to the Chag, and the failure to do so only makes them feel worse.
That simcha was not always so elusive. When the Clouds of Glory returned after the Sin of the Golden Calf on 15 Tishrei, Bnei Yisrael experienced the joy of knowing that Hashem had forgiven them and was reestablishing His relationship with them. Later, when all Jews dwelt in the Land and earned their livelihood directly from the earth, the harvest season was intrinsically a time of rejoicing, of taking satisfaction in enjoyment of the fruits of the long months of intensive physical labor preceding the harvest. But few of us still till the land or have ever experienced the joy that comes from hard physical labor.
Simcha is not a state of being that one enters automatically. Rather it requires intensive spiritual preparation on our part. In distinguishing the ten terms for happiness in Lashon HaKadosh (the Holy Tongue), the Vilna Gaon identifies simcha with the sense of well-being that comes from an awareness of a relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu. Like all relationships, that with HaKadosh Baruch Hu requires effort to build.
On Rosh Hashanah, we were called upon to imagine a world in which Hashem's Will reigns supreme, and all false powers have disappeared. And in preparation for Yom Kippur, we took stock of the patterns of our lives in order to understand all the obstacles we have created to aligning our will with Hashem's. Only after we have resolved to uproot those barriers can we aspire to the closeness to Hashem of Sukkos.
The dancing of Simchas Torah brings home the point that the quality of our relationship with Hashem, and thus the degree of our simcha, is dependent on our efforts. Those dancing most joyously are invariably also the biggest talmidei chachamim, i.e., those who have invested the greatest efforts in uncovering the Torah's secrets. They need no stimulants other than the Torah itself to experience the joy of the day; it is the outgrowth of their own hard work.
Precisely because the qualities necessary to sustain any meaningful relationship are so antithetical to the prevailing zeitgeist do we find it so hard to sustain our relationship with Hashem. Every deep, lasting relationship depends on the trust of the partners that each will forego his own immediate desires for the sake of building the relationship. But we live in a world of instant gratification, in which we are constantly told that it is a fool's choice to resist the allure of immediate pleasure. We want it all – sustaining, deep relationships and instant gratification. The two, however, are mutually exclusive.
That is the lesson of the sukkah. We leave our secure dwellings and enter into an impermanent one as an expression of our emunah (trust) in Hashem. In renouncing our dependence on physical surroundings of our own making, we lessen our ties to the physical, material world, and all the desires that go with it. That bitul hayesh (in Rabbi Dessler's terminology) is the key to sustaining our relationship with Hashem, as well as every other important relationship in our lives, and brings in its wake the simcha for which we yearn. Without the former, the latter is impossible.
It would be a pity if readers of Mishpacha were to assume that Family First is exclusively for women. For one thing, the health and psychological issues dealt with in its pages are frequently no less relevant to men than to women. And some of the articles are among the most important published in Mishpacha.
For what it's worth, I would place the August 25 Family First interview with Miriam Kosman, who has been working in campus kiruv in Israel for close to 20 years, as among the most honest and important articles I have read in a long time. For starters, I was delighted with her rejection of a too oft-quoted (because too oft-needed) aphorism, "Don't judge Judaism by the Jews."
That aphorism is often quoted in the name of another friend, Rabbi Berel Wein. I would agree with Rabbi Wein that while the Torah is perfect, Jews are not. The Torah is rather forthright about both the inevitability of failure and our specific shortcomings. In addition, I would agree that the most off-putting behavior of those who define themselves as Torah Jews is usually a product of a certain social conditioning rather than any serious confrontation with Torah texts (though that raises its own set of questions.)
But the question that we wish to encourage every non-observant Jew to ask is: "How would a life built around a relationship with Hashem differ from the one I'm currently living?" And the most relevant evidence regarding that question will inevitably be the lives and conduct of those who profess to have such relationship. Torah will be judged by us, and we should act accordingly.
Mrs. Kosman's most important insight, however, concerns the attitude towards non-religious Jews that underlies successful kiruv. If we convey the attitude, "You have no knowledge, no thoughts worthy of the name, and no values, and only act the way you do because you have never been exposed to Torah, while I know everything worth knowing by virtue of having learned Torah," we will never gain a hearing. If any further confirmation of that proposition were needed, just consider how successful Democrats have been dismissing all criticisms of Obamacare or the $787 billion stimulus as explicable only by the ingrained racism or sub-reptilian intelligence of the critics.
Mrs. Kosman's approach is to legitimate every question or challenge on the grounds that a true relationship with Hashem must involve every aspect of a person, including his or her understanding. "The minute you give a person legitimacy to think what he thinks," Mrs. Kosman observes, "he doesn't have to fight anymore and he can really listen."
Mrs. Kosman makes clear that one need not have all the answers in order to have a profound influence on non-frum Jewish students. The beauty of a Torah life and Torah society will commend itself to many. But it was also refreshing to hear her admit candidly that most of us could not answer the most penetrating questions likely to be put to us by students and provide some examples of such questions.
Her final important point is that not having immediate answers should not be a cause for panic but an occasion for growth. Through our efforts to formulate answers and show students what role their values would play in a world run by HaKadosh Baruch Hu, we too will grow in our understanding and appreciation of Torah. I for one am eagerly looking forward to reading some examples of how she does this, even if they are published in the "women's section."
The heterodox movements have long argued that the failure of Israel's Orthodox "monopoly" is proven by the fact that most Israelis define themselves as "secular," and that the import of American-style heterodoxy is the cure for the alienation from religion of Israeli Jews. The latest Central Bureau of Statistics survey of Israeli Jews over 20 leaves that argument dead on arrival.
First, the premise is wrong. Only 42% of Israeli Jews define themselves as "secular." Another 25% define themselves as "traditional, but not very religious." Interestingly, 21% of Israelis say they have become more religious over time, while only 14% have become less so.
Even among Israeli Jews who define themselves as "secular," the level of religious observance is far higher than among unaffiliated American Jews, who comprise the largest segment of American Jewry, and also much higher than among Reform Jews, and by many measures higher than among the rapidly dwindling number of Conservative Jews. Eighty two per cent conduct a Pesach Seder; two-thirds light Chanukah candles, 29% light Shabbos candles; 26% fast on Yom Kippur; and 17% build a sukkah. Ten per cent even keep kosher year around, and 22% during Pesach.
When the next least observant group – the "traditional, but not very religious" – is added to the calculation, the disparity between the two most secular groups of Israel Jews and non-Orthodox American Jews becomes even sharper. One-third of former keep kosher year around, and nearly half during Pesach. Over 10% do not travel by car on Shabbos.
American-style heterodoxy, then, would be a step backwards, not forwards, for Israel's most secular Jews. Argument closed.
"Lebanon gives Palestinians New Work Rights," reads the August 17 New York Times headline. As the Times makes clear, whatever rights were gained by Palestinians in Lebanon, most of whom have lived their entire lives there, they are pretty minimal. They will still not be allowed to work in any of the learned professions. They will still be confined to 12 stinking refugee camps, lacking even basic sanitation infrastructure. They will still be barred from owning real property in Lebanon.
Until Times readers learned that Palestinians had been granted the same rights to work in Lebanon as other foreign workers, who even knew anything about the conditions under which they endure in Lebanon, or that they are legally barred from becoming citizens, even if they were born in Lebanon and have lived there all their lives there?
The world media is full of discussion of Israeli apartheid, even though Arabs constitute almost 20% of Israel's citizens, and Arab citizens suffer from no legal disabilities. The "humanitarian crisis" in Gaza, for which Israel is blamed, is endless grist for the media mill. But who knew that the Lebanese government has been keeping its 400,000 Palestinians in far worse conditions than anyone is suffering in Gaza?
Mudar Zahran, a Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent, points out in the August 1 Jerusalem Post that the world's obsession with Israel has done incalculable harm to Palestinians in Arab countries, whose plight has been totally ignored. Thus Nabih Berri, whose Amal Shi'ite militia enforced a multi-year siege on Palestinian refugee camps, in which people were reduced to eating dogs and rats, is today the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. He travels frequently to Europe, without fear of prosecution on human rights charges, where he finds a ready audience for his lectures on Israel's "crimes against the Palestinian people."
Zahran writes that even the slaughter of thousands of Palestinian women and children in Sabra and Shatilla by Lebanese Christian and Shi'ite militiamen would have been ignored if not for the opportunity to bash Israel, whose soldiers had nothing to do with the killing.
In short, the suffering of Palestinians only counts if it can be used as a club against Israel. Otherwise it's not worthy of anyone's attention.