Parshas Emor: You Shall Rejoice Before Hashem

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Emor (in chutz la’aretz), the Torah records the entire cycle of holidays of the Jewish calendar year (Vayikra 23).  The shalosh regalim, as well as the yomim noraim, are outlined and recorded in the parsha.  At the very end of the chapter on the Jewish festivals, in regard to Succos, the pasuk says: וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי האֱלֹקֹיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִיםand you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d for seven days (Vayikra 23:40).  

The mitzvah of simchas yomtov, to rejoice on the festivals, is a fundamental aspect of our observance of the holidays.  Not only are we commanded to observe the festival, but we are commanded to rejoice in it!  Simcha yomtov is a unique mitzvah to the festivals, as we do not have a specific mitzvah to be happy on Shabbos, like we do on the chagim.   

“One motzei Yom Kippur, before Rav (Mosheh) Twersky zt’l HY”D left to go home, Reb Yoni Ash was conversing with his rebbi about various topics, and at a certain point, they began speaking about Succos.  Reb Yoni asked Rav Twersky, ‘What kavanos should I have during Succos?  What is the general idea, and what should I be focusing on?’  Reb Yoni thought his rebbe would launch into a whole exposition about the lofty concepts of Succos, but all Rav Twersky answered was, ‘Be happy!’  ‘Be happy?’ Reb Yoni replied.  ‘That’s it?!  No other ideas?’  ‘No! Just be happy!  That’s all you have to do.  Be happy the whole yomtov,’ was Rav Twersky’s reply.  After a short pause, he added, ‘It can be a difficult avodah!’” (A Malach In Our Midst, p.239).  

Simcha in avodas Hashem is seen as so fundamental as a tool to closeness to G-d and rejoicing with life, that King David exhorts us: עִבְדוּ אֶת הבְּשִׂמְחָה בֹּאוּ לְפָנָיו, בִּרְנָנָהserve Hashem with simcha (gladness), come before Him with song (Tehillim 100:2).

I recently read a beautiful vort in regard to the above verse.  King David tells us: עִבְדוּ אֶת הבְּשִׂמְחָהserve Hashem with simcha.  A homiletic interpretation is offered that understands the phrase to mean: עִבְדוּ אֶת הבְּשִׂמְחָה: it is a difficult avodah (עִבְדוּ אֶת ה) to always be happy (בְּשִׂמְחָה), and yet we must toil in this area, as in all areas of avodas Hashem.  

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Rav, zt’l (grandfather to Rav Mosheh Twersky zt’l HY”D), teaches: “וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם, לִפְנֵי האֱלֹקֹיכֶםAnd you shall rejoice before Hashem, your G-d.  This phrase suggests that when one is in the presence of G-d, there is joy.  

“G-d’s presence must be a constant experience in our lives.  Though we can neither see nor hear Him, each Jew must still experience the presence of G-d.  A Jew is required to develop the ability to feel closeness to G-d, to feel His breath on one’s face, to see Him in every phenomenon, in historical events and in the majesty of nature.  One must perceive G-d not only in miracles but in natural phenomena, and in particular in one’s own destiny.  The sensation of experiencing that one is lifnei Hashem is a halachic imperative.  

“Prayer, for example, requires more than intent – it requires that man experience G-d in his immediate proximity.  There is no greater joy than sensing that one is lifnei Hashem.  Joy is the sensation that one feels when he is close to his origin, the Creator.  He is aware that someone guides and cares for him.  The experience of lifnei Hashem is enhanced through the study of Torah.  The survival of the Jews throughout generations of persecution and abuse is due to the sublime experience of being in His presence.  

“On a festival, the laws of mourning are nullified on account of the joy associated with the day.  On a festival, all of Israel stands before G-d, and the festival’s importance is identified with man’s rejoicing before his Creator.  The joy is an emotional expression of the human experience of standing before G-d, and it is this appearance before G-d that fully annuls the mourning, for mourning and standing before G-d are mutually exclusive.  

“Because sin separates between man and G-d, one merits happiness upon attaining forgiveness of sin, for true simcha occurs only when one feels himself directly in G-d’s presence” (Chumash Masores HaRav, Devarim, p.109).

R’ Dr. Norman Lamm z’l powerfully writes, “True joy, in the Jewish sense, is not an escape from life but an intensification of its loftiest features.  Simcha is the elation of mankind, the elevation of our souls that comes with the realization that we stand in the presence of G-d – that we are not alone on the face of the earth.  That is why simcha is the special characteristic of the three pilgrim festivals, the shalosh regalim, for then the Israelite would ascend to the Temple to be seen before Hashem (Devarim 16:16).  To enjoy the companionship of G-d and His gifts, that is the gist of happiness.  

Simcha does not come from avoiding the knowledge that there is evil in the world, from blinding oneself to the enormous threats of pain and death.  It comes from an appreciation that in this kind of world, despite evil and sickness and pain, there is a G-d Who watches over us, that we do have the opportunity to vanquish evil, that there is a vibrant, active principle of holiness and purity and goodness.  We do not use the historical origin of our holidays as an excuse just to pursue happiness or have fun.  The holidays are themselves expressions of joy when man faces the world with open eyes and an open heart, and each holiday has its own character and its own joyousness (Derashot Ledorot, Leviticus, p.134-135).

“…As we say every morning in our Shachris prayers: ‘ashreinu, mah tov chelkeinu, u’mah na’im goralainu’ – Happy are we!  For how good is our destiny, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!’” (ibid, p.136).

In our world of extreme turbulence, confusion, and void, in our world of questions-with-no-answers, political upheaval, and national pain, in a world where Eretz Yisrael is under ever-present threat and attack R”L, simcha may seem like an elusive dream.  And yet!  The Torah commands us to come before G-d with joy, to cultivate the middah of simcha within ourselves, and to rejoice with the bounty of blessings Hashem bestows upon us.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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