September 10, 1998
Putting the Joy in Judaism
Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
A few years ago, two of my colleagues took their families on vacation to Mammoth Lake. While there, the families spent Shabbat with one another, eating their meals together, singing zmirot (Shabbat songs) and enjoying each other's company.
After lunch, the two rabbis, dressed in their normal Sabbath garb, decided to take a walk. Along the way, they encountered a man, head completely shaven, who stopped them and introduced himself. He told them that he was a Buddhist monk, and that he was meditating near the building where they were staying. While sitting under the tree, he had heard them singing zmirot, and, at first, he thought his soul was experiencing heavenly chants, until he realized that the sounds had a more earthly tone.
As they continued to speak, the rabbis found out that the Buddhist monk had been born Jewish and had the Hebrew name, Yaakov. He had had a bar mitzvah many years before but had found Judaism "lacking beauty and spirituality." He told the rabbis that he tried, on numerous occasions, to attend synagogue services, but found each experience uninspiring. Therefore, he went searching among other religions until he became a Buddhist monk.
After hearing his story, the rabbis assured him that what he thought was a great revelation was indeed just that. It was the zmirot of Shabbat calling him back home, and telling him that Judaism is replete with radiance and spiritual beauty.
Although many might think that the Buddhist Yaakov's complaint about Judaism is a purely modern phenomenon, in actuality, it is a problem that dates back to the beginning of our history. In this week's Torah portion, among the list of sins causing terrible curses of retribution we find enumerated the necessity of joyous gratitude. According to the Torah, we will be punished when we "had plenty of everything" but "would not serve God with happiness and a glad heart" (Deuteronomy 28:47).
This verse implies that it is a terrible sin to be ungrateful and perform God's commandments without joy and happiness. Unfortunately, this scenario frequently has occurred in Jewish history. For example, during the 18th century, many Jews prospered, but Jewish worship stagnated without vibrant spirituality and joy until the Chassidic movement reinjected dynamic beauty with divine service. That spirituality and vitality saved Judaism for the masses and allowed it to thrive even through the horrors of the 20th century.
In ancient times, the Psalmist exhorted us, "Ivdu et Hashem B'simcha" -- "Worship the Lord with gladness" (Psalms 100:2). The 12th-century commentator, David Kimhi, understood this to mean that our worship should not be a burden but should be performed with joy and good cheer.
It was in the 19th century, however, when the great German rabbinic thinker, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, suggested that it is a reference to more than just the divine service. Rather, he noted, that this refers to the joy which should permeate our everyday lives and, as a result, will accompany us into the House of the Lord.
In our own time, if we wish to avoid any further Yaakovs from leaving our ranks for other religions, we must project the beauty and spirituality that permeates our religious heritage. We must combine a commitment to intellectual excellence with emotional devotion. Judaism can't remain a religion that espouses boring synagogue services. Rather, it must be one that pulsates with excitement and happiness.
Rabbi Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.