Parshas Emor – Don’t Worry, Be Happy

What is the most difficult mitzvah in the Torah?

Fasting on Yom Kippur? No Oreos for eight days on Passover? No texting for 25 hours on Shabbos?

Surprisingly, some commentaries say that the most difficult is the one, found in this week’s Torah portion, commanding us to rejoice on the festivals.

Because happiness is serious business, with few things being more elusive.

What is the secret to happiness? Can the material and physical pleasures many people spend an inordinate amount of time pursuing ever do the trick?

Truth be told, as opposed to other religious belief systems, Judaism doesn’t view self-denial as the spiritual ideal and never doubted the value of physical pleasure. Indeed, the Rabbis interpret the obligation to rejoice on the festivals to basically mean that (along with proper Torah study and prayer) we should go ahead and enjoy fine wine and a good steak, nice clothes, and a good piece of chocolate.

But that is only half the story.

In middle of discussing the festivals, the Torah takes a break and teaches laws obligating us to take care of the poor and the converts who live among us. The commentaries are puzzled by the seeming misplacement of this mitzvah. One possible explanation is that it comes to teach us an important lesson — at the times of our greatest joy, we are not allowed to forget those who have less.

Maimonides offers a fascinating insight. He explains that the proper understanding is not that we take a break from our own joy to make sure others are taken care of, but rather by sharing with others we are assuring that our own joy is complete. As he explains, eating alone, or even with just our immediate family, is the empty, short-lived, “joy of the stomach,” while sharing with others is the soul-filling eternal joy of the Divine. Such joy is not only spiritually meaningful, but also allows one to truly enjoy the here and now as well.

So you want happiness? Go ahead, enjoy your steak. But share it too.

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