by Rabba Sara Hurwitz
Jewish tradition demands happiness: “You shall rejoice on your festival” “v’samechta b’chagecha” (Exodus 16:14). Commanding simcha is a strange mitzvah. Usually, tradition mandates rituals – you must sit in a sukkah and shake the lulav. But how is it possible to command an emotion? Perhaps, in America, the land of plenty, demanding pleasure is not such a strange request, a country where many strive for decadence. A model for this form of pleasure-seeking happiness would be a country club, an exclusive place established for the elite, where members come to socialize and indulge their hedonistic pleasures.
It is clear though, that achieving happiness through the country club model cannot be the paradigm for how a Jewish community achieves simcha. The verse in Exodus continues, “You shall rejoice on your festival – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow.” How does one achieve joy? One must help those who have less. The holiday celebration cannot be complete unless space is designated at the table for the orphan and the widow. Charity is not simply the act of giving money. The formula for achieving happiness is inviting others to your table and treating all people with dignity.
Piety is not solely achieved by performing the rituals specified in the Torah. The mitzvah of celebrating the holidays can only be fulfilled when we are mindful of the needs of others. For example, the Zohar (vol III 104a), redefines our traditional understanding of sitting in a sukkah, suggesting that when we enter the sukkah, and encounter a lavish table laden with food and drink, we invite in the Ushpezin, celestial guests, in the form of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David to the table. Abraham, the father of chesed, kindness, refuses to remain at the table unless a second set of Ushpezin is present at the table. This second Ushpezin is defined as the impoverished.
Whoever has a portion in the people and in the Holy Land dwells in the shade of faith and welcomes the celestial guests, so that s/he may rejoice both in this world and the next. In addition, however, s/he must help the poor to rejoice. Why? Because the portion of the celestial guests whom he has invited belongs to the poor.
One cannot fully engage with our faith and tradition unless the downtrodden are invited to engage alongside us. We see then, that faith and tzedaka are bound tightly together. One cannot hide behind the rituals of the lulav and etrog, or sit in the sukkah at the cost of ignoring those in need. The Zohar continues: “And if s/he dwells in the shade of faith, and invites these celestial guests, the guests of faith, and fails to give them (the poor) their portion, they (the celestial guests) all arise and leave him, saying “do not eat the bread of him that has an evil eye…” (Proverbs 23:6).
Tzedaka in not merely a mandate of the Torah; it is the ethical basis for the manner that we live our lives. Caring for others is the way in which we strive to achieve joy. For there cannot be authentic simcha, real happiness, when those in need are left outsides our gates, and shut out of our synagogues.
The test of a synagogue is not how it receives those who are powerful, but how it welcomes the lonely and the vulnerable. We cannot only accept those who fit the paradigm of our communal standards, we must focus on those who are in need. This is our challenge. And only when we strive to help others, can we achieve true happiness.
Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first institution to ordain Orthodox women as clergy, and serves as spiritual leader at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.