Parasha Terumah

One of my favorite Psalms is the one for Wednesday, Psalm 94:  "For the law shall return to righteousness, and all those of upright heart shall follow it." Implicit in this verse is the reality that the law is not always righteous. As the Torah warns us, sometimes there is avale bi-mishpat or perversion in law. Norms are essential for any functional society, but obedience to the law is never a sufficient religious posture. The truly pious jurist is zealous not so much for enforcing the law as for protecting the integrity of the system so that it can be an effective tool for righteousness.

It strikes me that Parshat Terumah follows Mishpatim—the latter focuses on rules required for a stable society. But once stability is achieved, something more is conceivable—a righteous community where people join together to create a sacred center and to worship together. Tyrants can establish stable societies (think Saddam Hussein), but who wants to live like that? After justice comes righteousness as the next rung in a progressive approach to God.  What personal strategies are helpful in making this approach? Self-sacrifice? Resolve and resilience? Reverence? Yes, all of these are needed, but they will not alone suffice. 

The final words of Psalm 94 raise the question of how one becomes "upright of heart." This phrase recurs seven times in Psalms, and in three cases it is associated with simcha, with joy.  What these verses imply is that righteousness brings simcha, joy, and perhaps the inverse as well—that joy leads to righteousness. When a person is despondent, it is hard for him or her to act with sympathy and compassion. But when a person feels joy, he or she can afford to lend support. And then, in acts of righteousness, one discovers a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and this leads back to joy. It is a positive feedback or loop to practice righteousness and cultivate joy.

This is the way that I understand Reb Nahman of Bratzlav's (1772-1810) famous dictum, mitzvah gedolah lihyot bisimhah tamid, that it is a great mitzvah to be joyous always.  Reb Nahman's philosophy is not so obvious—I am not aware of any earlier statement identifying a commandment to be happy. As contemporary Rabbi Shai Held once said to me, only a person who finds happiness to be challenging would call it a commandment. Reb Nahman is well-known for his moodiness, much like the Psalms are, and it is perhaps this swing of emotions that makes his writings so spiritually accessible. Still, I feel that what Reb Nahman means is that cultivating joy augments the practice of mitzvot, and cultivating mitzvot, augments joy.

The Sefat Emet taught that just as Elul is a time of teshuvah leading to the new year of Tishrei, so too is Adar a time of teshuvah leading to the new year of Nisan. But whereas Elul is dedicated to cultivating a sense of reverence, Adar is used to be marbeh bisimhahSimcha is not silliness, though there is a place for that emotion on PurimSimcha is the deep spiritual joy that comes from restoring righteousness to society and to one's own religious practice.  We are fortunate to have a leap year this year with two months of Adar.  Let's cultivate such joy in our community and beyond during the coming weeks of Adar.


Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham