More than thirty years ago, during the period my father z”l was in his final illness, we were talking about something or other and I asked him how he felt about whatever the topic might have been. He answered with, for him, a characteristic and very logical analysis so I asked him again, “But how do you feel about it”. He gave me another, slightly different, logical analysis. This went on several more times until, as I repeated my question, “How do you feel?”, he started to cry.
For many years I thought it was because he finally realized that I was really concerned with his feelings, with his emotional response. Since he always cast himself in the role of the provider and much less so (I, at the time, incorrectly thought) the comforter, I was sure that it never occurred to him that people who loved him cared about his feelings as well as his intellect.
Recently a different reading of this story has begun to develop. Perhaps, after repeatedly trying to teach me an important lesson, he cried in frustration at my refusal to hear what he was saying. As I was nearly thirty at the time, perhaps he thought it was high time I focused more on obligations and how I might fill them, and less on the feelings.
Consciously or unconsciously, I think that most of us in the western world, especially my generation and younger, absorbed Karl Marx’s dictate that “religion is the opiate of the people”. Even those of us who have remained active and committed to our religious/spiritual traditions often miss the point of them, trying to twist their focus towards ourselves rather than towards God. Religion is offered as a comfort, a means to fulfillment and “enlightenment”, in other words, as an opiate. It’s supposed to help us create and maintain a “positive self image” rather than following it’s paths and techniques to achieve aims above ourselves.
Despite my curmudgeonly bluster, of course we function within Torah to share our joys and to support each other in our sorrows, but even here the actual goal isn’t celebration or mourning, but our participation in these rituals in order to fulfill the obligations of the Torah which really means to participate in those aspects of actual Tikkun Olam which life presents us.
It’s often perplexing when our mitzvot are arational, when we don’t experience some sort of immediate uplift as we fill them. Our expectations are so high, as they should be, but too often they’re misdirected to a very limited view of the world. Even those of us who study and explore our mystical/spiritual traditions of worlds beyond our abilities to perceive, even those of us who deeply believe in them, are tempted to ignore them when we don’t get some sort of payback, at least on an emotional level. We’re so easily discouraged.
I could say that we should train ourselves to feel joy and fulfillment knowing that we’ve met our obligations, but that’s just not realistic. Even if that potential is “hard-wired” into our makeup, it faces too much competition in a world focused on the surface and the immediate.
This Shabbat, which is also, this year, the eighth day of Pesach in the galut, the diaspora, will be the fiftieth anniversary of my Bar Mitzva. For me especially, it will be a day of looking back and trying to take lessons into the future. While I don’t want to give the impression that my father z”l was unusually dour–I remember the joy and pride he had in my milestone, just as I have so many memories of him laughing until tears ran from his eyes and he couldn’t catch his breath–I’m grateful for the gift, all these years later, of his advice to me in that long-ago conversation.
“Harry”, he was actually telling me, “it doesn’t always matter if you’re happy or sad. You’ll feel both many times throughout your life. What is always important is if you tried your best to be responsible, to fulfill your obligations in life. The right thing might or might not make you feel good, but it is the right thing.”
And as I think about it as we come to the end of our festival of freedom, I realize that we must also free ourselves from the dictatorship of our own feelings.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom.