10/05/2006

Simchat Yom Tov, Rav Soloveitchik, and Oktoberfest

A well-known idea, articulated by R’ Soloveitchik, is that the Simcha of Yom Tov derives from the existential state of being ‘lifnei Hashem’. True joy, for the Rav, is only in the Presence of God. A quick glace at these results from Google gives an idea of just how widespread this idea of simcha has become. A neighbor of mine just came over to borrow my copy of Harerei Kedem, R’ Michel Shurkin’s cliff-notes on the Rav’s teachings about the Jewish Holidays. He is preparing a shiur on the simcha of Yom Tov. On how true simcha is lifnei Hashem. Walk over to any random guy in the RYBS orbit and ask “what’s the definition of simcha according to R’ Soloveitchik?” BAM. Lifnei Hashem.
There are different variations within this idea, depending who you ask. Lifnei Hashem might be the ultimate simcha, the true simcha, the only simcha, or the state which triggers the obligation of simcha.
Here’s the problem: it’s incorrect. It is VERY possible to have plenty of simcha with or without God, and the Torah is full of references to it. Furthermore, the Rav’s idea is not even borne out by a simple reading of the verses he uses for support. In fact, it flies in the face of a central theme of Sefer Devarim. Allow me to explain.
In the context of the 3 festivals, each time the obligation of pilgrimage is mentioned, God is referred to as ‘Adon’ – Master (as in ‘Yes, Massah’), Magnate, Landowner, Balabos. Our obligation to make the pilgrimage is formulated as the obligation of the vassal toward the magnate. Lest we begin to think that the land is actually ours, that we are entitled to it, we are enjoined to visit the true Owner thrice annually, and to bring tribute along.
This theme recurs throughout Devarim, from beginning to end. The Torah is constantly warning and legislating against growing too self-secure and forgetting God in our success. It is in the very formulation of the mitzvot of Shabbat (in the Devarim version of the Decalogue), the laws governing slavery, the obligation to pray after eating (bentching), the gift of the first fruit (bikkurim), and, as mentioned, the obligation to make pilgrimages.
It shows up in the ‘warning’ sections at the beginning of Devarim (‘kochi ve-otzem yadi being the most well-known and characteristic phrase), in the awful tochecha (which I’ll address shortly), and in Ha’azinu (va-yishman Yeshurun va-yiv’at). In the tochecha, the element of simcha appears specifically. In a well-known but oft-misunderstood section, the Torah warns against forgetting God while being in a state of simcha. If we neglect to serve him while we’re happy, we’ll end up serving our enemies from a state of material want. Simcha without God is indeed possible, but heinous and worthy of punishment.
This brings us back to sukkot, which is our time of joy (zman simchateinu). It is the Jewish ingathering festival (Chag Ha-asif), which is naturally a time of intense joy. Many, many cultures celebrate the annual gathering in the autumn. This is the time when everything that was left out in the field to dry or ferment is brought in. Right at the beginning of the winter is when there’s a lot of food available, so it’s time to party. So the Germans have Oktoberfest, the Americans – Thanksgiving, and we Jews, Sukkot. The Torah was concerned that the natural simcha of this time period would deteriorate into a simcha in which God is absent (and I’ll resist the temptation to take potshots at the way in which Simchat Torah is celebrated in many American congregations); thus, the Torah mandates that our simcha be lifnei Hashem.
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