Shavuot a time for joy of life, accomplishment

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Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17

The Torah, in today's reading, demands that we rejoice on the Jewish holidays. "And you shall rejoice on your festival" (Deut. 16:14). At first glance, it seems odd to command happiness. Surely people want to be happy without being told to do so.

Besides, we think of joy as arising, like other emotions, spontaneously. And who can control emotions?

On second thought, we do expect people to control their emotions. We certainly ask them to control their negative emotions often enough: "Don't let yourself get angry," we advise, or "Don't be depressed."

Yet we do not often specifically recommend positive emotions. Imagine finding your friend in a sad mood, and saying: "Be happy." Would it work? What mechanism would he or she use in an attempt to become happy?

Counselors suggest that we usually cannot succeed by aiming for happiness. They say instead that happiness comes more often as a by-product of performing a meaningful activity. People who work hard at learning to play the violin, or caring for a sick relative, feel the happiness of accomplishment. They might advise your depressed friend to help someone.

Now, today is Shavuot, and let us suppose your friend feels bored or grumpy rather than happy. What can you do to help him or her fulfill this commandment?

The great philosopher Maimonides, in his compendium of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, presents the obligation to his (male) readership in a very down-to-earth way:

The seven days of Passover and the eight days of Sukkot with the other festive days are prohibited for eulogies and fasting. One is obligated to be happy and cheerful on these days, along with his children, his wife, his grandchildren and all his guests: "You shall rejoice on your festivals, etc."

The celebrant is obliged to make his children and household happy, each one in an appropriate way. How? For small children, he gives them roasted grains, and nuts, and candies. For women, he buys them the clothing and pleasant ornaments that he can afford. And the men eat meat and drink wine, for there is no joy without wine. (Laws of Yom Tov 6:17-18).

For once, Maimonides does not seem especially philosophic. Candies, beautiful clothing, good food and wine: Each give pleasure to some classes of people; so they enable us to experience joy in a direct, simple way.

But Maimonides continues, advising that when he eats and drinks, the celebrant must provide food for the stranger, the orphan, the widow along with other poor and unfortunate people…One who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats along with his children and wife, and does not provide food and drink for the poor and the bitter of soul, this is not the joy of the commandment but the joy of his belly…a disgrace. (Laws of Yom Tov 6:18).

This ruling comes right out of the Bible. You just have to read the whole verse to find Maimonides' source: "You shall rejoice on your festival, you and your son and your daughter and your male servant and your female servant and the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow who are at your gates" (Deut. 16:14).

We want festivals to bring the family together, which seems difficult enough in America today. But if only the family comes together, without including the poor, the stranger, the widow and the depressed, we do not yet have the right kind of happiness.

In my experience, middle-class Americans do not feel at ease around poor people. Even people of high ideals who care about the needy experience discomfort in the presence of the needy themselves. We do not invite the poor effortlessly into our family celebrations. When we tell tales of welcoming disadvantaged strangers, too often we set such tales in Eastern Europe, or ancient Israel. "Far away, and long ago," we seem to say, alluding to a time and place in which Jews aspired to holiness.

Even today, though, right here in America, one can experience the joy of the festivals with both components: physical comfort and significant accomplishment. As we enjoy the pleasures of good food, clothing and company, we share our pleasures with those who need. We should not deprive ourselves of either of those joys on our festival.