Alcohol vs Simcha

I have to admit to liking a drop. Strangely however I’ve never been able to take part in the rather heavy “straight to the head on an empty stomach” that occurs on Shemini Atzeres during or before Hakofos. I don’t know why, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say I appreciate that people have been generous, but the “barn like” atmosphere affects half of me.  the Brisker side, and not the Amshinover side. That’s speculation. I don’t really know. My disposition on Simchas Torah is laboured. I tend to look at the Sefer Torah and find it harder as I get older to muster Simcha because the older I get the more I realise that there is much more that I don’t know than I do know. I tend to stand, and look in a Sefer, and probably appears (unintentionally) pompous or remote. It’s my issue. I heard I nice vort today from Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Groner where he said the מחשבה … cognisant thinking are the same letters as בשמחה and that through מחשבה of good things as opposed to wallowing in one’s “I haven’t yet achieved where I should get to” one may get to בשמחה. This is of course quite consistent with modern-day psychology which exhorts parents et al to concentrate on the achievements and the good things. Likely, I am still affected by the hole in my life, that is my father, but should concentrate on the wonderful new additions of our four beautiful grandchildren כן ירבו בדרך התורה והמצווה על פי המסורה הקדושה.

The following two videos are presented in this blog as food for thought. I think there may be a part 3. I’m not sure. I will post it, if I see it.

and

Enjoy.

Personally I have a long way to go to get past “going through the motions”. When one is younger, especially returning from higher Yeshivah, one is convinced that they have the Torah. The Brisker influenced part of me, especially from the Rav, and then realising what an ant I am listening to HaGaon Rav Hershel Schachter שליט’’א, has turned me into something more sanguine. It’s not humbleness. It’s just reality. I can’t hide reality.

Achdus=Unity or Sloganeering?

We have emerged from an intense month. Starting from the Ellul lead in, through Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur, onto Succos/Hoshana Rabba and culminating in Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah. I use the word culminating, because in a pristine existence, it is meant to be a culmination after which ויעקב הלך לדרכו, the newly inspired and invigorated Jew “goes on his way”.

In the days of old, when distractions of worldy existence were minor and inconsequential, and when tomorrow was simply a new day, it was arguably less of an issue to exult in finishing the leyning of the Torah. (It wasn’t always the case that we completed the Torah each year, but I digress).

I fondly remember dancing the night away at (the Religious Zionist) Mizrachi Shule only to arrive in the late evening at (the Chabad) Yeshivah Centre. We were young, restless and more daring back then and attempted to hijack the singing by introducing “Tziyon Halo Tishali” (a Satmar tune for those interested in trivia, and one which connotes sadness vis-a-vis Kinos on Tisha B’Av). This song, was akin to a Religious Zionist anthem, and we were determined to show that “we have arrived” and perhaps, just perhaps, we could all sing together. We got away with it, and the singing and dancing continued in the usual uplifting vein.

Rabbi Groner ז’ל  together with other “elder”  Chassidim, hosted all with a classic Farbrengen on Shmini Atzeres. Regaling us with stories of his youth, and more, we sat spell-bound for hours. Snippets of Chassidus were spoken, and anyone could pipe up and say something. Some interloping comments were interesting whilst others displayed the result of someone who was less able to hold their liquor. There was, however, a feeling of Achdus and inspiration.

In later years, Rabbi Groner would be wheeled in, but the Farbrengen continued as long as he had an ounce of strength left in his body. To be sure, there were other significant iconic Chassidim of yore, R’ Zalman, R’ Nochum, R’ Chaim Serebryanski,  to name a few. It was like a pseudo-pantomine. They often criticised each other, under the influence of some Mashke (alcohol) and although we sometimes witnessed Rischa D’Orayso (heated interchange, for want of a better description) it was never acrimonious and, importantly, nobody pulled rank. Indeed, Chabad is a binary system as far as people go. There was the Rebbe and then the rest. It was, as in the beginning of Parshas Nitzavim: from the Rosheichem, the leaders, right through to the water drawers.

Mashke was a lubricant. It released the inhibitions. It facilitated an ability to dispense with the Tirdos (worries) of Olam Hazeh, the world we live in, and temporarily immerse in something more corporeal. In short, it was a means to an end. It was never an end of itself. Personally, I found that as I got older, Mashke helped me to “lose” the relative trivia that might be occupying my neurones and focus. It sounds contradictory, but it’s the reality. Mashke is sufficient, but it is by no means necessary, so to speak.

Fast forward. It’s Shmini Atzeres. Nusach Sfard and Chassidim perform Hakofos in Chutz La’aretz. There is a Kiddush (in the Chabad Yeshivah Shule where I have davened for eons) and many said kiddush (in the Succa) ostensibly to resume Hakaofos, somewhat liberated by the Mashke. In the last few years, I have felt decidedly uncomfortable going into the Succa for this preparatory libation. I do not refer to the issue of under age drinking. That is a separate item and not the topic in this post. The atmosphere of late, especially this year, seems to have become one more akin to a tavern/pub (lehavdil). Many never return to Hakofos, and the kiddush on mashke, has become an end, and not a means to an end. It is true, that my attention was also somewhat “distracted” as I was learning about Cohanim, Air Planes, Tumah, Moving Tents and floating carpets, and came to the realisation that I was close to clueless about the intricate Dinim of Tumas Ohel and Kelim, so I could be described as “preoccupied”.

The next day, as a Cohen, I duchened. I was somewhat psychologically affected by a Halachic question I had been reading from R’ Oshry ז’ל regarding a Cohen in the Ghetto whose voice box had been dismembered by the Nazis, may their memory be blotted forever. I felt strangely inspired to “give it my all”. I had a voice box. I wasn’t tormented. All I needed to do is have thoughts of אהבה and ask Hashem to give everyone everything they needed.

We then retired to the Shmini Atzeres farbrengen. I made kiddush, and then a little more, and waited with pregnant excitement to hear words of wisdom. It was probably me. All I heard was sloganeering and seemingly parroted thoughts that I had heard so many times before. There was no “git vort”, no “geshmake mayse”, not even a new Chassidic insight into the day we were meant to be only happy.

I began to question things being said our of sheer frustration. Perhaps if I hadn’t been exposed to the “good times” or had been more tolerant towards this somewhat more mediocre experience, I would have stayed silent.

I wanted to say something. It was to be my attempt to steer the ambient discussion towards some Tachlis. It had been on my mind during davening, and while there could have been an opportunity to do so in the good old days, and did, it sadly had no place anymore.

The shutters were up. The Arba Minim are meant to signify a unity and tolerance of all types of people and philosophies. Call it a symbol of Achdus or Unity, the personification of ואהבת לרעך כמוך. I felt that it was relegated to sloganeering. There was no action. One kind soul, attempted to assuage me

Isaac, if you were sitting in a Belzer Succah, do you think they would allow a non Belzer to say a Dvar Torah?

It was then that I realised he was right. This is, sadly, what we have become (in most places). We have compartmentalised to an extent where everyone thinks they have the (sole) mortgage on the truth. It’s my way or the highway. There seemingly can no longer be more than one path to serving Hakadosh Baruch Hu. Eventually I left.

As I walked home, I reflected on the words of the first Amshinover Rebbe, R’ Yaakov Dovid ז’ל

The Rebbe asked about the well-known Passuk in Tehillim:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים גם יחד

Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting also together

The verse should have read:

הנה מה טוב ומה נעים שבת אחים יחד

Behold it is good and pleasant when brothers are sitting together

The word גם—also—is superfluous and misplaced. The Rebbe explained that there are many occasions where brothers (and sisters) sit together. However, it’s only good and pleasant when they are also together, sharing a commonality.

I wondered how each original Rebbe, who was a student of the Magid of Mezeritch sat around the same table. They had nuanced differences in their outlooks. Were they together? Of course they were. In our day, each Chassidic group is basically in its own cocoon. The same is true of non Chassidim.

On Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, one would have thought that the uniting element, the Torah itself, would have the pulling power to create the גם יחד.

Maybe next year. I’ll be positive. There is no other choice.

Drinking on Purim

Rav Kook gave the following Dvar Torah in his Siddur, עולת ראי’’ה  :

The Talmud in Megillah 12a states that the near destruction of the Jews in the time of Ahasuerus was a punishment for participating in the royal banquet and bowing down to the Persian idols. What led them to perform these disloyal acts?

The Jews of that era thought that the root cause of anti-Semitism was due to xenophobic hatred of their distinct culture and religion. As Haman explained his rationale for destroying them:

“There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every other people; neither do they keep the king’s laws.” (Esther 3:8)

In order to overcome this hatred, the Jews decided it would be prudent to adopt the customs of their idolatrous neighbors. They demonstrated their allegiance as loyal Persian subjects by attending the royal banquet and bowing down to the Persian idols.

However, the Jews soon discovered that their efforts were futile. They were dismayed to learn of Haman’s plot to annihilate them, despite their best attempts at integrating into the local culture.

Accepting the Torah Again

With the realization that assimilation was not the answer, and that their only true protection from enemies is God’s providence, the Jewish people reaffirmed their commitment to keep the Torah and its laws.

“‘They confirmed and took upon themselves’ (Esther 9:27) — they confirmed what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).

The Talmud teaches that the renewed commitment to Torah at Shushan complemented and completed the original acceptance of Torah at Sinai. What was missing at Sinai? The dramatic revelation at Mount Sinai contained an element of coercion. Alone and helpless in the desert, the Jewish people could hardly refuse. The Midrash portrays this limited free choice with the threat of burial beneath the mountain, had they refused to accept the Torah. In the days of Ahasuerus, however, they voluntarily accepted the Torah, in a spirit of love and pure free will, thus completing the acceptance of Torah at Sinai.

Effusion of Good Will

This appears to be the explanation for the unusual rabbinic requirement to become inebriated on Purim (Megilah 7b). It is ordinarily forbidden to become drunk, since without the intellect to guide us, our uncontrolled desires may turn to immoral and destructive acts.

But on Purim, the entire Jewish people was blessed with an outburst of good will to accept the Torah. On this special day, every Jew who respects the Torah finds within himself a sincere yearning to embrace the Torah and its ways. For this reason, we demonstrate on Purim that even when intoxicated, we do not stray from the path of Torah, since our inner desires are naturally predisposed to goodness and closeness to God. Even in a drunken state, we are confident that we will not be shamed or humiliated with the exposure of our innermost desires. As we say in the “Shoshanat Ya’akov” prayer on Purim,

“To make known: that all who place their hope in You will not be shamed; and all who take refuge in You will never be humiliated.”

We can ask a few questions here. It is understandable that drink and merriment caused the Jews of that time to try to become more like the Nochrim of that generation. We understand this. That attitude, or mistaken belief, was at the root cause of the enlightenment in Germany and elsewhere. Jews thought that they could behave like Nochrim in the street, and like Yidden at home. They falsely relived what the Jews of Persia already found out. A Jew is a Jew is a Jew. You cannot escape from that. Your pin tele Yid will shine somewhere, sometime. There will be a descendant of Amalek who will resent that countenance. That descendant will threaten your physical and/or spiritual existence.

What is the response? One response is that of extremes. Chassidim have decided that they will adopt measures which go beyond Halacha. Halacha does not mandate that Jews  are forbidden to wear the same style clothes as non-Jews. A male Jew fulfils a positive command if he wears Tzitzis, and according to some Acharonim, fulfils a Rabbinic command if he wears a Yarmulke. Both males and females should guard the laws of Tzniyus in their attire (and demeanour). Some Chassidim, however, don’t consider this enough. They would like to look “like Jews” (as in a Uniform) in the street. This is an extreme reaction in the same vein as those who take the opposite extreme and dress to look specifically like Nochrim.

What does drinking achieve? Far be it from me to claim that I don’t know. Drinking is a poisoned chalice. It can be liberating, in that it removes inhibition. It can be liberating, in that it unburdens one’s stress and worries. It is an artificial time-bound expediency. How much does one drink? Unlike all other Mitzvos, we are specifically not given an amount. Why? Is it a Reviis, is it ten Reviis? It is neither. The amount one drinks is subjective. It is precisely the amount that leaves a person free to the extent that they are unstressed by the fact that they are not troubled by the concept of a blessed Haman. How can a person not be troubled by that? Surely, the thought of God looking favourably upon the Hamans of this world is distressing in the extreme?

That depends on where one’s feet are. If one is sober, one’s feet are planted in this Earth at this time, in the Golus leading to Geula state that we are in. Inebriated, one is able to rise above that sunken reality and levitate, albeit for only a short period, into a Utopian reality where וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם השם נקרא עליך … that even the Nochrim will see that God’s name is inscribed on our foreheads.

How though do we understand the idea that we can confuse Mordechai as being cursed? My understanding of this is that it is only in our sober state that we mistakenly only see our perfection, only occasionally focussing on those cursed areas of our free will which cause us to stray off the Holy path. We know only too well, that once a person has their veneer lifted, when they have had a few shots, they often become very willing to introspect and describe their failings and indeed seek to consider them afresh.

I feel that this is a meaning of עד דלא ידע in the context. But, like everything in our world, שם שמברכים על הטוב, כך מברכים על הרע, in the same way that one can bless over good things, one blesses over bad things. Alcohol can also be abused. If a person is already in a state where they do not appreciate the difference between a blessed Mordechai and a cursed Mordechai, because they have diluted Mordechai, or they already don’t understand the difference between a cursed Haman or a blessed Haman, then that person will gain nothing by drinking the Alcohol except a headache and an unwanted expectoration. Alas, these types of people need to have a Purim party, but only when they understand the Purim in the party. If there is no Purim, it’s just another party; a Goyishe party. ודו’’ק

Simchas Torah and modes of Simcha

Yes, it’s a time when we are all enjoined to be happy. It’s not just that we have to be happy. There are even curious leniencies that the Rabbis permitted. Duchening at Shachris is a concession. Chazal clearly realised that תפסת מרובה לא תפסת and that if they didn’t set ברכת כהנים in the morning, there would unlikely be any proper Duchening at Mussaf. Why didn’t Chazal stick to their guns, so to speak? Why didn’t they simply say that drinking to a point of שכרות (not עד דלא ידע) was strictly forbidden and instead encourage a nice kiddush/seuda after davening albeit with more alcohol than usual?

Furthermore, according to non Chassidic Poskim, clapping (and even dancing) are forbidden on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Clapping in particular is permitted on Simchas Torah? Why? It seems this is for the כבוד התורה? It was enacted at the time of the Geonim. Again, I don’t understand. If clapping on Yom Tov is forbidden, why permit it on Simchas Torah? It makes no sense to me. I’d be more than pleased to understand the limits under which halachic considerations seem to be allowed to be relaxed as a result of the dictum of והיית אך שמח.

I have been reading a wonderful set of essays about the Yomim Tovim from Rabbi Dr Norman Lamm. His delicious prose and profound insights never cease to regale me. This year, I read an essay on Shmini Atzeres. I mentioned it briefly at our table on Shmini Atzeres evening. Rabbi Lamm asks why specifically this Yom Tov had the notion of unadulterated Simcha, such that אך connotes an increase of Simcha as opposed to the usual meaning of אך which is a reduction.

He goes onto quote an insightful Gemora in Yoma 21a where as soon as Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah had concluded, everyone was petrified. They were worried about the גשמים. Rain signified פרנסה, the ability for someone to make a living and keep the proverbial clock ticking at home. All eyes were on the smoke of the מערכה; the smoke from the wood which would burn the sacrifices. The particular direction of the wind at the end of Shmini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, signified the גשמיות fortunes that were to be ushered in. Would they be good for the poor or the rich? Would it be bad for everyone or good for everyone?

According to Rabbi Lamm, the effective culmination of Tishrei, where we immersed ourselves so deeply in עבודת התפילה and in תשובה and fasting was suddenly if not hesitatingly upon us. Hashem had said “stick around for another day … but on one condition, you must be happy“. With the winds soon to advise us whether our prayers had been answered, who could be happy? Every human mind would be worried. What will happen? Was I listened to or have I been consigned to some other non descript path. Would I have נחת and good health, or would things God forbid not seem to be so great. The fear of the unknown is a palpable one.

I. Holtz (from the alexander gallery)

When I daven for the Amud, I have always been wracked with guilt. Will I be an adequate Shliach Tzibbur?  On Shmini Atzeres, it’s all over. The deed is done. We’ve all passed כבני מרון. The downturn potentially begins. ויעקב הלך לדרכו. Hashem says ’No’. He says, be happy. Delight in my Torah. Make my Torah happy through your enacting its commands.

Ah, but would it be so easy.

This year, I quixotically watched people circumvolve while brandishing a Torah. Smiles on some faces, while others robotically gyrated, occasionally exalting in niggun. Were they happy? Truly happy? Were they going through the motions, or was it just me? Perhaps it was indeed me who was thinking too deeply and allowing myself not to let go. Was I in a state of spiritual suspension? Why wasn’t I jumping out of my skin to dance? Sure, when I was younger I danced like there was no tomorrow. No doubt, I learned more Torah than I do now, both qualitatively and quantitatively. I still learn, though. I still like nothing more than to grab a Sefer and immerse myself in an ענין of Torah. I love it. I always will. So, what has changed. Life’s good!

Rabbi Lamm notes that if the Torah commands happiness, then this must mean that happiness is not at all dependent on the direction of the smoke. It is an inner state. It doesn’t matter whether the extrinsic reality will turn out to be good. It must be, that happiness is an internal state of achievement, something that one can reach by somehow locking out and extinguishing the portion of one’s state of mind that seems utterly subservient to the external;  to the existential reality of our existence and all that goes with it.

Society recognises this internal friction and electricity. It calls it stress. Stress comes from something external (unless it’s a chemically induced condition). Stress is treated in at least two ways. One way is ingest a medically indicated dulling agent. By dulling our reaction to stress, we are able to refocus on what matters and deal with the here and now. Another method in vogue is known as mindfulness. It borrows ideas of buddhist relaxation and seeks to find a cognitive dissonance from negative (stressful) thoughts and then suffusing these with positive notions. Again, the idea is to somehow remove the negative barriers. In a Jewish context, the source and meaning behind positive notions is more natural and substantial.

Having a few לחיים’ס on Simchas Torah has always helped me to divest myself of every bit of hindrance that could envelop my neurones and prevent me from watching the dancing in a mechanistic manner or participating in gratuitous robotic gyrations together with a plastic grin. Is that why Chazal told me to Duchen at Shachris and allowed me to clap? That’s not to say that I, nor anyone else, countenances wanton drunkenness or alcohol abuse. Nor am I saying that this is for everyone, or even for the majority of people. For me, however, it’s a release. It frees me to not focus on externals. It allows me to not pivot on the “direction of the wind” at the conclusion of Simchas Torah. It’s a crescendo; the last movement of the symphony, if you will, a spiritual journey of uplifting, that started at Slichos, through Rosh Hashono, Yom Kippur, Hoshana Raba, concluding with Succos.

To the rest of you who can divest yourselves of worldly stress without any agent and reach אך שמח on your own, well done!