Thursday, May 23, 2024

If You’re Happy and You Know It…

One of the interesting aspects for a bochur when he goes to learn in Eretz Yisroelis often getting to meet and know family he'd never met, or met only briefly, until then. When the host families are simple people and yorei Shomayim, much can be gleaned from each visit. Sometimes even small, seemingly insignificant acts can impart a lifelong lesson.

A certain bochur once experienced one such enlightening moment. He had gone to a relative for an entire Shabbos, arriving a couple of hours before its onset. These relatives were special people, medakdekim in mitzvos, and absolutely gracious hosts. The husband taught in a yeshiva, the wife in a girls school, and the bochur always looked forward to the exciting divrei Torah shared at their Shabbos table, the pleasant company — and the great food.


On this particular visit, the bochur was sitting in the living room reading one of the little children a book, when the hostess came in to light the Shabbos candles. The book recital stopped for a moment as everyone watched that special part of every week.


“Mommy’slighting candles,” the child whispered reverently.


The bochur wordlessly nodded his agreement.


Something about the candle-lighting struck him. At first, he wasn’t sure himself what it was. The lady of the house was standing prim and proper, her lips moving in silent prayer, her entire being clearly aware of the awesomeness of this moment and its potential for tefillah and kedushah.


It was a beautiful, touching, scene, no question about it.


Yet, something, something intangible, niggled at the back of the bochur’s mind. What was it?


A picture of his mother standing every week at candle-lighting played in his mind — and then it hit him. Of course there was nothing wrong with the scene in front of him. It was perfect.


Too perfect.


This bochur’s mother was from “the old school.” She had grown up in the days before our blessed Bais Yaakov movement and a proper Jewish education was a given for every frum girl. She had what we’d call a day school education — if even that — yet what she lacked in knowledge she more than made up for in gifeel, in passion, sincerity and simplicity of belief. She may not have been able to quote a Ramban or Maharal concerning the wondrousness of Shabbos or the power of tefillah, yet the pure tears she shed as she prayed from her Tehillim attested to a heart that felt what her mind may never have learned.


Though he’d never thought much about it until now, the bochur now realized that his mother probably never attended even one single class where she could have learned the many beautiful and inspirational ideas and concepts behind the Shabbos candle-lighting. When she came to bentch licht, she had very few, if any, Medrashim or ma’amarei Chazal to focus on. Yet, his mother, each and every week, would light the candles and then just stand there and cry. She knew this was her moment with Hashem, and she was clearly unburdening herself to Him as only a daughter could to a loving Father.


It was that simplicity that he realized he now missed, and for which he suddenly developed a newfound appreciation. He, his sisters and his relatives are all part of this generation, he realized. We know so much, and that surely is not a bad thing. There is no denying the major strides we’ve made and the wide-ranging positive aspects of a well-educated generation. Still, it might be true as well that while we’ve fed our minds so much, we’ve neglected our hearts.


Unless we are unnaturally calm and unflappable people, almost any reader can remember times and occasions when they’ve exclaimed in excitement. Most of us do this all the time. Whether it’s getting 100% on a test or simply pulling a good card in a game, whether it’s hearing about an engagement or merely finding a parking spot right in front of a store, we easily and automatically react with a “Yes!” an “Ohmygosh!” or an “I can’t believe it!”


Conversely, when things don’t go so well, be it a major loss or just a missing pen, we react as well with an “Uch!” or an “Oy vey!”


When was the last time we had any such reaction, for good or for bad, relating to something spiritual?


They’d put us away if we did! Just imagine: “Uch! I said lashon hara. I can’t believe it. That was so silly of me.”


Did he flip out or something? people would wonder. He should probably be seeing a therapist.


Or, “Yes! I managed to say a whole brachah in bentching without getting distracted and thinking of the basic meaning of the words. I’m soooo excited!”


Oh my, she so frummed out, it’s scary, we think. We better get her help before she totally loses hold of reality.


Seriously, though, when was the last time we reacted with excitement — simple, automatic excitement — for anything relating to Yiddishkeit? It’s almost like we’re not allowed to. Of course we can think, inside, that we did something good. We can tell ourselves that we’d like to improve in this or that area. To let it out, though, the way we so easily and freely express even the silliest things in our lives, is a major no-no.


“This Sukkos I’m going to try and get to at least two different Simchas Bais Hasho’eivos every night of Chol Hamoed.”


Heads nodding all around. Sounds like a great idea.


“This Sukkos I’m going to wear my new Mon K. Cee outfit that I bought in Klassy Klonze.”


Ooooh. Can’t wait to see it. It’s going to be a hit for sure.


“This Sukkos I’m going to try working on feeling real simchah because it’s a time when we’re so close to Hashem.”


Everybody looking down and awkward. No one knows what to say. I mean, is he/she normal?


Now, we aren’t saying that people should actually start acting so overtly excited about their Yiddishkeit. After all, no one wants to be put away (!), and, for good or for bad, there is something to be said about behaving within socially accepted norms (when those norms do not contradict our beliefs). However, why don’t we at least feel like we want to shout and exclaim in excitement when it comes to a real, eternal achievement, when we find it so easy to do so for the most trivial of pleasures?


Rav Yosef Mendelevich, renowned Russian refusenik, recently spoke in a number of schools and yeshivos on the East Coast. Among his many phenomenal anecdotes, one story relates specifically to our discussion.


At one point in Rav Yosef’s imprisonment, he decided to try and keep Shabbos. Admittedly, he knew very little about Shabbos. A child born after years of Russian efforts to obliterate Judaism, Yosef knew only that he wanted to be a Jew, but he had little knowledge of what that even meant. The little anybody picked up from any source was shared by the rest of the “Jewish Underground.” That was the sum total of what Yosef knew about Yiddishkeit.


When it came to Shabbos, Rav Yosef says he knew that there was a special meal, and thus he put away a few crumbs of bread every day, so that by Friday he had a small pile of crumbs. This was to be his Shabbos seudah.” He wanted to clean his cell in preparation for this special day, so he asked a guard for a shmatta and some water. With this, he preceded to wipe the floor and walls of his cell!


As he “cleaned” for Shabbos, Yosef felt a sharp prick. He noticed a tiny piece of a nail stuck between two stones in the wall of his cell. Realizing that everything can be put to some use, Yosef used the nail to scratch out the image of two “candles” on the cell wall.


What did he know about candles? He’d never even seen his mother, or anyone else, light them for Shabbos. Someone in the “underground” had gotten hold of a Jewish postcard, though, which featured a black and white picture of a woman lighting two candles and had the blessing for lighting them printed underneath them. This was what Yosef knew about Shabbos candles.


He now proceeded to scratch out a picture of two candles on the wall of his cell, after which he stood back and recited the brahcha he’d memorized from the postcard. This was his licht-tzinden.


Following his brachah, as he stood there before his “candles,” he related, he felt as if he saw real fire burning in front of him. He felt the warmth and holiness of Shabbos Kodesh descend upon him — and he broke out into a dance! There he stood in a Russian cell, persecuted, tortured and beaten for a belief he hardly knew anything about, and yet he was so suffused with joy that he began to jump, sing and dance as excitement coursed through him and erased — for the moment — all the hardships he was going through. He knew but one Jewish song, Dovid Melech Yisroel, and he sang it until a guard came running into his cell thinking he’d gone berserk.


One is hard-pressed to think of the last time we felt even a smidgen of such excitement at our performance of a mitzvah. We do our mitzvos with the full hiddurim, within the comforts of our homes and shuls, with the benefit of knowing all the whys and inyanim behind the mitzvos and having learned an endless amount of inspiring material pertaining to each one.


With all that, with everything we have amassed in our minds, how much do we allow to flow into our hearts? If we don’t know what’s so exciting about mitzvos, we should definitely try and find out. After all, if they can get an oppressed man in a Russian cell dancing, there must be something exhilarating about them. Let’s find out what it is, or tune in to that which we may already know but have never let ourselves feel.


Sukkos is Zeman Simchaseinu. It is a unique time of joy and excitement and closeness to Hashem. It is a time when we’re supposed to not only speak about simchah, but to feel an actualtoe-tapping, all-encompassing, genuine thrill coursing through our bodies.


Someone once asked Rav Chaim Brim zt”l on Sukkos how one reaches the level of simchah. The questioner clearly expected to be given some sort of intellectual response with parameters of true simchah.


Instead, Rav Chaim looked at him as if surprised and said, “You want to know about simchah? Just go to Masmidim (the local yeshiva) during their Simchas Bais Hasho’eivah and watch them dancing with geshmak and fervor! That’s simchah.”


No doubt, Rav Chaim understood that doing cartwheels does not make one happy and that empty forms of “fun” can be just that: empty. What he was trying to impart, though, was that true happiness willlead to real excitement. One does not simply attain a din, a fulfillment, of the parameters of happiness. Real happiness and excitement in mitzvos will find expression the way we express our happiness and excitement at all other times as well, if not more so. If you’re not happy enough that you just want to go and dance, you haven’t reached true happiness yet. 


There are so many cheap thrills out there vying for our, and our children’s, attention. There are so many forms of excitement luring us. Sure, we must educate ourselves as to why these are false and why we have the real truth. Yet, while we feed our brains, let us not neglect our hearts.


If we walk into our sukkah and break into a spontaneous dance with our families, we have given them — and ourselves — something real, something genuine, and something truly powerful that would make any other cheap thrill look petty and empty by comparison.


On this Zeman Simchaseinu, let’s be happy — and know it!



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