The Heart of Jewish Joy

A modest proposal: As a reward to the Jewish people for having survived the 20th century, let’s make Purim our High Holiday.

Not that there’s anything really
wrong with our current High Holidays. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are compelling days of personal introspection, reflection and evaluation. But after withstanding a century of pogroms, mass dislocation and Holocaust, claiming a tiny sliver of a homeland only to attract the rage of a billion Muslims and the resentment of the rest of the world, we’ve earned a holy day of unconditional joy.

If Jews the world over, including the most alienated and unidentified, are going to find their way to synagogue just once a year, let it be a day we hand them a mask and a grogger and share the jubilant story of a courageous Jewish princess and her triumph over evil. Let it be a holiday celebrating the victory of life over death. Let it be a day of unmitigated Jewish joy. We’ve earned it.

And we need it. The long career of Jewish suffering has twisted the Jewish soul.

I taught Hebrew school years ago, and one Sunday morning I overheard a conversation between a father and his child.

“Dad, I hate Hebrew school,” the kid said. “It’s boring, it’s stupid, the teachers are mean, the kids aren’t nice. I hate it and I don’t want to go any more.”

The father pushed his child up against the wall and said to him: “Look, kid, I went to Hebrew school when I was your age, and I hated it. It was boring, the teachers were mean, the kids weren’t nice, but they made me go. And now you’re going to go to Hebrew school just like I did.”

What a tragedy, what a catastrophe to raise generations who know only a twisted Judaism, a Judaism of coercion, boredom and emptiness.
My grandfather would read the Yiddish papers and mutter, “Shver tzu zeiner Yid” (It’s hard to be a Jew). For my grandfather, being a Jew was an unquestioned destiny, but the world made it so difficult, so painful.

In our time, we’ve twisted this around. It’s no longer a description.

It’s become prescriptive: “Shver Tzu Zeiner Yid.”

We’ve come to expect that anything authentically Jewish must be hard, painful, difficult. No chrain, no gain.

A friend — a truly beautiful soul — converted to Judaism. She came back to see me in deep sadness. Her Christian friends and co-workers congratulated her on her new faith. They bought her gifts to celebrate. Her Jewish friends were openly derisive: Why on earth would you want to be Jewish? What’s wrong with you?

The greatest book on American Judaism is Mordecai Menahem Kaplan’s classic, “Judaism as a Civilization.” The first line of that book reads: “Before the beginning of the 19th century, all Jews regarded Judaism as a privilege; since then most Jews have come to regard it as a burden.”

To heal the twisted soul of the Jewish people we need unequivocal expression of Jewish joy. So let’s make Purim our High Holiday.
Purim is a deceptively simple holiday. Its merriment masks a complex set of issues: the power politics of Diaspora, the multiple identities engendered by assimilation, the single-mindedness of evil, the conflicted conscience of the righteous. It is a story of secrets, hidden truths and concealed realities. And somehow we sense the Presence of God in the story’s shadows. But it ends in a flash of light, of truth and of celebration. It is thus a remarkable treatise on the nature of Jewish joy.

Jewish joy is not escapist or delusional. Who knows the world’s darkness and brokenness better than we do? But standing before light and darkness, blessing and curse, life and death, we choose life. It may be the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah to fulfill. But we choose life. That is the heart of Jewish joy.

“The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16). And so may it be for us.

Happy Purim.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He serves on the faculty of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the University of Judaism, the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Whizen Center for the Jewish Family and the Synagogue 3000 initiative.

Not by Bread Alone

One of my most memorable Torah lessons from elementary school was the one about the manna. This was the magical food that the Jews ate while traveling through the desert. It was some kind of amorphous bread that fell from heaven daily, and the Torah describes it as being like honey wafers. Part of the magic of the manna was that it could taste like whatever one wanted it to. And this is where the imagination of the wide-eyed child was piqued: If you were thinking about pizza, the manna tasted like pizza; if you were thinking about a thick, juicy steak — well, you get the picture.

Early in the 20th century lived a venerated sage who was known as the Chafetz Chaim. A student once asked him: What did the manna taste like if you weren’t thinking about anything? The Chafetz Chaim responded that in that case, the manna had no taste whatsoever. And so it is, he concluded, with all spiritual endeavors in life — be it prayer or the performance of a Jewish ritual — if you don’t apply your mind to the task at hand, it’s usually a bland and tasteless experience.

Our Torah portion describes the manna as both a benevolent miracle and a burden. Describing God’s great love for the Jews, the verse says (8:3), "He afflicted you and made you hungry; He fed you the manna which neither you knew nor did your fathers. He did this in order to inform you that man does not live by bread alone; rather, man lives by the word of God."

Manna was a food that tasted like whatever you wanted, and that fell from heaven daily — so why is it called an "affliction"?

Another Midrash tells us that the reason we light Shabbat candles every Friday night is to remind us of the manna. What in the world is the connection?

Despite its wonderful qualities, the only problem with the manna was that it didn’t look like the food one was thinking of. As any caterer will tell you, taste is only one component of a pleasurable culinary experience. Of equal importance is the presentation — how the food appears on the plate. That is why, according to the Midrash, blind people don’t enjoy their food as much as sighted people — they sadly miss out on the visual pleasure of eating. Similarly, the manna may have tasted wonderful but it lacked the other esthetically pleasing qualities of food.

One of the reasons the rabbis wanted us to light Shabbat candles was to allow us to have a more pleasurable eating experience at the Shabbat table. With light on the table, not only can we taste delicious food, we can also see the glistening beads of schmaltz reflecting off the matzah balls, the grainy-textured brisket exuding gravy and the golden orange fluff of the sweet tzimmes.

As soon as the Jews entered the land of Israel the manna suddenly stopped. It was now the job of each person to cultivate the soil of the Holy Land, and to work by the sweat of one’s brow to put food on the table. No longer would the Jews suffer the "affliction" of the amorphous manna.

When the Jews were in the desert, they were in a developmental stage, like a worm in a cocoon, waiting to emerge as a mature butterfly. During this gestation period, they were living an existence that was as detached from the physical world as possible, so they could drink in all of the spiritual lessons that needed to be inculcated within the Jewish nation at its inception point. But this was an artificial, temporary existence. The "real world" was waiting for them on the other side of the Jordan River, when the physical world, despite all its vicissitudes and flaws, would perforce be an integral part of their lives.

We live in that world as well. The manna teaches us that while detachment from the physical may be desirable at limited intervals, the best way to serve God is by integrating one’s physical experiences and raising them up to a place of holiness. We are meant to use the visceral experiences of eating and other mundane activities as a means of coming closer to God.

It may be true that "man does not live by bread alone," but he also cannot live by manna alone. Now that we have been blessed with our bread, let us lift it up as we recite the Hamotzi blessing and thank God for the blessings of both a spiritual and physical life.