I want to share with JTNews readers the message I delivered to my congregation, Sephardic Bikur Holim, on Shemini Atzeret, Sukkot because it should be applied to our everyday life. The festival of Sukkot requires us to be happy. In Deuteronomy 16:14 it says: “You shall rejoice in your festival.” The festival is also called “The time of our rejoicing.”
My question remains, “How can we possibly pay attention to a command that requires us to be joyous, especially at this time when we face economic uncertainties, difficult times in our nation, and other disturbing and unstable threats in the world that affect our well-being?”
The contradiction is answered in our Torah in the following way: “You need to consider how a happy or joyous person behaves.” And we, likewise, should conduct ourselves in the same manner in spite of the other forces pulling us in the opposite direction, i.e., to wallow in our sadness and misery. Because even if our heart is not yet filled with happiness and we behave in a positive way, the heart will follow. If we can smile a little, sing a little, and dance a little when we are commanded to do so, our inner feelings will follow. This profound lesson has enveloped the Jewish people from the beginning of our history and it has become our tradition.
Our entire history has been one of sadness, threats and insecurity. Yet it is we who have taught the world how to be happy and be thankful for what we have. We emphasize this feeling in our morning prayers.
There are so many commandments given to us through our Torah for every individual to carry out. Our rabbis tell us that the purpose of mitzvot were given to us — kedei letzareph bahem benei adam — to purify us with each one. In other words, to throw out the negatives of life and concentrate on the positives, like cleaning out the impurities from pure gold. The majority of our mitzvot, our commandments, are action-based. Actions come first and inner feelings often follow suit.
I have heard motivational speakers often say “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” We, in turn, should be acting with loving kindness, even if we feel the opposite. Even though to some people this might seem hypocritical, it is not. Hypocrisy is when, deep in our heart, we don’t desire a change, and we act totally against that deep desire.
This hypocrisy is coined in the Talmud as “Ehad bapeh veehad balev” — one in your mouth and a different one in your heart. In our case, we hope that the external will influence the internal.
Here is one area where the Torah outlook is at variance with contemporary values. In our contemporary world, “feelings are supreme.” The inner feeling comes before the behavior. The inner feeling dictates your actions so that if one feels love in one’s heart, then one acts in accordance with that love, in spite of rules and limitations. In the reverse, too, we hear so often, “I don’t love them; it would be hypocritical to act as if I do.”
In our Torah we learn it is the other way around. We act or behave in a certain way, and the inner feelings of the heart come afterward. When the children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai, their immortal words were “Naase vehishma.” First we shall do and then we shall understand (Exodus 24:7). First comes the action, then comes the inner feeling. First comes the duty, then comes the love.
Once in trying to mediate between an estranged mother and son trying to rebuild their relationship, the mother complained that when the son saw her he refused to hug and kiss her as a son should do to his mother. But the son said that he was angry at his mother because she did not treat his wife as a daughter, as she did with his other siblings, and could not bring himself to kiss her. My advice to the son was to do it anyway, even if he did not feel like it. That would be the Torah point of view.
In a similar situation was the advice of a professional marriage counselor to the question, “How do you rebuild affection between a husband and a wife when they do not feel affectionate?” His advice was: Tell them to act as if they feel affectionate, hold hands even when they feel estranged, and kiss each other (modestly, of course). The action may feel unnatural at first, but eventually the feeling will flow from it. The correct action itself will eventually lead to the correct inner feeling.
As a society, we place great value on inner feelings. But ultimately, love is manifested in action. Even the commandment in the second chapter of the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God” is followed by a whole series of actions from “teaching them to your children, to bind them on your hands, and place them on your door posts.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9.)
On the same subject, a colleague related to me how a bride and groom once came to see him to plan their wedding. In the middle of the interview, the rabbi was surprised to see that the bride-to-be was not wearing a ring. The groom replied, “We feel our love in our heart. We do not need such artificial symbols to show our love.” It is in the same way that single people who live together without being married say: That they do not require legal papers to show and express their love. But later in a private moment, the bride confided to the Rabbi, “I know he loves me, but I wish he had bought me a ring.” She really and truly desired a commitment of action, not simply just a profession of an inner feeling.
So it is not only on the festival of Sukkot that we should act joyous, but in every day of our lives because, hopefully, “hahitzoniyut yashpia al hapenimiyut,” the inner feeling will follow the act of joy and true joy will return to our lives.