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Torah Attitude: Parashas Shelach: Happy to breathe
It is likely that the Mishnah mentions happiness after humility because only a humble person can be truly happy. A happy person feels good about himself and will find it easy to succeed in his endeavours. When we wake up in the morning, we are instructed to immediately say a prayer of thanks to G'd where we express our appreciation for the return of our soul to our body. Any given situation we have more to thank for than to complain about. We have to thank G'd for every breath that we breathe with our soul. Three times a day, we pray to G'd and ask for our daily needs, such as health and sustenance. It is appropriate for all of mankind to show appreciation for the care and love G'd shows every individual. Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah are times for tremendous celebration and happiness. The majority of European Jews who came to America lost their children to assimilation and intermarriage. Even though the parents were scrupulous in their observance, they had such hardships that they lost their happiness in life. When someone is happy to learn he will absorb the material he is studying a lot easier, and will be able to accomplish a lot more in much less time. Just as we must develop a satisfaction and happiness when we study the Torah ourselves, we must look for ways and means to ensure that our children and students enjoy their studies.
Only humble truly happy
In last week's Torah Attitude we discussed how humility is necessary to acquire Torah. The next thing the Mishnah enumerates that is needed to acquire Torah is happiness. It is likely that the Mishnah mentions happiness after humility because only a humble person can be truly happy. A person who is proud will always feel entitled and crave more and more. It can manifest itself in many different ways. Sometimes he wants to be honoured. At other times, he may be greedy and is ready to do anything to amass wealth. Nothing will ever be sufficient. Such a person, says the Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 1:13), if he has one hundred, he will desire two hundred, but it does not stop there. Once he has acquired his two hundred, he will want four hundred. The more he has, the more he will desire. On the other hand, the humble person is always satisfied and happy with his lot, and he appreciates whatever he gets.
Easy to succeed
A happy person feels good about himself and will find it easy to succeed in his endeavours. But if one lacks happiness, he will find it difficult to perform, and even a small task will feel like a burden. The question is how can we accomplish to feel happy all the time? If we follow the Torah's directions in our daily lives we can achieve true happiness. For the Torah guides us to become happy members of society by appreciating every detail of our life.
The first step is when we wake up in the morning. We are instructed to immediately say a prayer of thanks to G'd where we express our appreciation for the return of our soul to our body. In order to fully realize the significance of this prayer, we must understand what happens to every individual during the night. Rashi (Shemos 22:25) quotes the Midrash Tanchuma (paragraph 16) that relates how a person's soul ascends during their nightly sleep, and stands in judgment in front of the Heavenly Court. Only a small part of the soul stays within the body to keep the body alive throughout the night. Even if the person sinned during the day and the soul is found guilty, in most cases G'd allows it to return to the body. In this way, the person is given a chance to rectify past wrongdoings and renew the effort to fulfill his mission in life. Afterwards, we say the morning blessings where we thank G'd for all our faculties that function anew every day. This includes when we open our eyes and get out of bed, and take care of our bodily needs. All these things we tend to take for granted. But, unfortunately, there are many people in the world who are not able to take care of themselves and their daily needs. By saying the morning blessings, we remind ourselves that all these mundane tasks are Divine blessings for which we want to show our appreciation and thank G'd.
More to thank than complain
This is how we should go through our entire day, with a joie d'esprit, feeling happy about life itself. My late father used to say that in any given situation we have more to thank for than to complain about. The trick is to focus on the positive sides of life. Even a person who goes through a difficult period, and is suffering, must remember that the gift of life itself is a blessing. As the Prophet Jeremiah (Eichah 3:39) says: "What is the person who is alive complaining about?" The Midrash (ibid) comments on this: "He should be thankful that he is alive." We must always remember that life in itself is a blessing; quality of life is an extra bonus.
Thankful for breathing
In the last verse of Tehillim (150:6), it says: "Every soul shall praise G'd." Our sages explain that this means that we have to thank G'd for every breath that we breathe with our soul. Normally, we do not think about what it involves to take a breath. Our sages here teach that even breathing should not be taken for granted. When we go to the hospital, and encounter patients who need oxygen tubes or who are on life-support, it brings this message home very strongly. Once we internalize this lesson we understand the need to express our appreciation for our constant ability to breathe and everything else associated with it.
Health and sustenance
Three times a day, we pray to G'd and ask for our daily needs, such as health and sustenance. Here again, our sages train us to express our appreciation. Towards the end of Shemona Esrei we thank G'd for the wonders and miracles He performs for us on a daily basis. This helps us to focus on the small daily miracles that otherwise would go unnoticed.
G'd's chosen people
These expressions are appropriate for all of mankind in appreciation of the care and love G'd shows every individual. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:18) says: "[Every] human is beloved, for he was created in G'd's image." But the Jewish people must express a special appreciation for our chosen status in the world. As the Mishnah continues: "The people of Israel are beloved, for they are called the Children of the Omnipresent … for a cherished vessel [the Torah] was given to them … as it says, (Mishlei 4:2) 'For I have given you a good lesson. Don't forsake My Torah.'" We express our appreciation for this every morning when we say the blessing and thank G'd for not having created us as a gentile. This is no way meant as a derogatory reference about all the righteous gentiles of the world. Rather, it is an expression of our appreciation for the special mission G'd has given us when He presented the Jewish people with the Torah and all its commandments. In the same spirit we thank G'd later in our prayers and say, "We are fortunate, how good is our portion, and how pleasant is our lot, and how beautiful is our heritage." These expressions of "our portion", "our lot" and "our heritage" are all references to our special relationship to G'd and His Torah. Our sages instituted these prayers and blessings to help us to appreciate and be happy with our special mission in life.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah
The Chasam Sofer writes that this is also the purpose of the celebration when a boy becomes Bar Mitzvah. Obviously, this also applies when a girl becomes Bat Mitzvah. At this point in life, the youth becomes obligated to fulfill the commandments. This is a time for tremendous celebration and happiness, and the happiness is the very first fulfillment of a mitzvah after being obligated to do so.
Burden if not appreciate
On the other hand, the Torah clearly teaches that if we do not appreciate and feel happy about our opportunities to fulfill the commandments this is a very serious matter that has dire consequences. As it says in Parashas Ki Savo (Devarim 28:45-47): "And all these curses will come upon you … because you did not listen to the voice of HASHEM your G'd to observe His commandments … because you did not serve HASHEM your G'd in happiness." This seems very harsh. If a person fulfills the commandments why should he be punished and cursed just because he was not happy about it? However, if we analyze it a little deeper we can well understand the seriousness of the situation. Someone who just observes the commandments, without feeling the privilege and opportunity, will experience everything as a burden. Even if this person himself will continue to observe the commandments, there is very little chance that he will be able to convey the importance of the commandments to his children and grandchildren. The great halachic authority and leader of American Jewry, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, used to say that the majority of European Jews who came to America lost their children to assimilation and intermarriage for this very reason. Even though the parents were scrupulous in their observance, they had such hardships that they lost their happiness in life. On the contrary, they would often say, "Oy, it is so hard to be Jew."
Happy to learn
Especially when it comes to learning Torah, we must emphasize and express our appreciation for having the opportunity to study the word of G'd. We must remember and internalize that in fact G'd is sharing His wisdom with us, and allowing us to look at the world through His lenses. On a practical level, the commentators explain that when someone is happy to learn he will absorb the material he is studying a lot easier, and will be able to accomplish a lot more in much less time.
Incentives and encouragement
The Talmud (Pesachim 117a) relates how the great sage, Rabbah, would make some light comments in the beginning of his lecture in order to open the minds of his disciples, as this would help them to better understand what he was teaching. This teaches us that just as we must develop a satisfaction and happiness when we study the Torah ourselves, we must look for ways and means to ensure that our children and students enjoy their studies. Every age group needs incentives and words of encouragement appropriate to their level of maturity. The Torah is full of incentives promising us different blessings such as wealth and peace if we follow its commandments. In this way, the Torah guides us how we shall educate our children and students. When we show the way and express our appreciation for the privilege to study the word of G'd, and fulfill His commandments, we have already utilized an important tool in our efforts to educate the next generation, and ensure a vibrant continuity of Torah values.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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