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Monday, 18 August 2014

How to enjoy a funeral

Moed Katan 8

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous.” 
He would tell the story of a poor man whose work was to dig clay and sell it.  Once while digging, he chanced upon a stunning, large diamond.  Showing it to a number of people, they suggested he go to London to sell it.  He sold all his possessions and made his way to the seaport with the little money he had.

Lacking the necessary funds for the sea journey, he showed the diamond to the captain and promised to pay him in London.  The captain gave him a beautiful cabin, overlooking the ocean and each day he would admire his diamond and beam with joy.

One day, after eating, he dozed off.  In the meantime, the kitchen crew came and removed the contents of his table – meal, diamond and all – throwing everything overboard.  He woke up and his immediate reaction was devastation.  But then he thought to himself, ‘If the captain finds out I no longer have the diamond, he will not hesitate to similarly throw me overboard.’ And so he maintained his countenance of joy.

A couple of days later, the captain came to him and said that he was about to buy a huge quantity of wheat to sell in London but was concerned lest he be accused of using funds that were not his own.  Therefore, he would purchase the wheat in the name of the poor man. The poor man just smiled and agreed.

Upon arriving at the shores of England, suddenly the captain took ill and died.  Suddenly, the poor man had wealth way above and beyond the value of his diamond!

Explained Rabbi Nachman: The diamond did not belong to the poor man.  The proof is that he did not keep it.  The wheat did belong to him.  The proof is that he kept it.  Why?  Because he chose to maintain his joy in the face of adversity.

If we have challenges in our lives, how do we fulfill Rabbi Nachman’s dictum, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous?”  Is happiness no more than a façade?  You can’t manufacture happiness, can you?  Either you’re happy or you’re not!  How could Rabbi Nachman posit it as a commandment to be happy?

The Mishnah states:  Rabbi Meir teaches, “A person may gather the bones of his father or mother for reinterment on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival), since it is joyous.”  Rabbi Yossi says, “No, it is a source of mourning [and forbidden during the festival].”

The Gemara asks: Rabbi Meir’s opinion appears to contradict the Beraisa that states, “One who gathers his father’s or mother’s bones must mourn for them all day!”

Abaye explains: We should say that Rabbi Meir means that (one may gather the bones during the festival) since the joy of the festival is upon him.

Rabbi Nachman’s teaching “Mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha” is often understood as “It is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be joyous.”  But you can’t command someone to be joyous!  The real meaning of his sage advice is that “A mitzvah can grow to enable you to be happy.”  In other words, the joy you get from doing a mitzvah must grow and grow until it spills over into every aspect of your life!

The two extremes on the joy-scale of life are the joy of the Jewish festival and the grief of death.  As we’ve learned previously, “He who never saw the joy of the Temple water-drawing festival, never experienced joy in his life.”  And it goes without saying that the sadness of the death of a loved one is the greatest pain one can experience in this world.

Rabbi Meir takes these two extremes and teaches us how to bring joy into even the most trying ordeals of life.  “Mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha – a mitzvah can grow to enable you to be happy!”  The deeper you are able to experience the joy of the mitzvah of the festival, the more you will be able to cope with the grief of reinterring your loved one.  For he who truly masters the joy of the festival, even the act of interment becomes a joy.  That doesn’t mean that serious acts become light, G-d forbid; rather, one achieves a level of inner-fulfilment whereby he appreciates the joy and vitality of every part of life, even those that would otherwise be impossible. 

If Rabbi Meir’s teaching is true at the extremes, how much more so is it achievable with the lesser challenges we face in life.  How do you get through the stresses and vicissitudes of daily life?  You take your strength and joy from your performance of mitzvos. 

When you get nachas (joy) from givng tzedakah (charity), take that joy and think about it when life becomes stressful!  When you experience the oneg (pleasure) of the Shabbos table, let that carry you through the craziness of the week!  The excitement of putting on tefillin in the morning should stay with you throughout the trials and tribulations you encounter at work the rest of the day!

My uncle David Wolff says, “Don’t let the 10% of life that is challenging envelop the 90% of life that is invigorating and awesome.  Instead, take the 90% of your life that is joyous and inspiring and let that swallow up the 10% so that your life is full of extreme happiness!”  Mitzvos grant us the opportunity to fill our lives with joy so that the balance is way higher than just 90-10.  Do a mitzvah today and carry that joy with you throughout your life!

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