Money Isn’t the Only Way to Happiness

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Meshech Hochmah comments twice on 26;11, with no break to clarify whether he meant to connect them. To explain the Torah’s reference to you and beitecha, your household, rejoicing in all the good Hashem will give, he repeats the Gemara’s assumption the word refers to a man’s wife, the centerpiece of his household and life.

He knows a Midrash where the tov, the good she will rejoice in, is shirah, song, and thinks it explains Semak’s view a husband can nullify a wife’s vow not to hear songs (or music), because it will afflict her. [The husband only has the right to nullify a wife’s oaths if they affect him or cause her distress, since he has a stake in her mood; happy wife, happy life].

Were he to have stopped there, it would suggest he did not think women celebrated the bounty of the harvest the same way men did, the “good” they find gratitude-inducing would be the singing of the celebrations around the first fruits. [He does not bring it up, but Mishnayot in Bikkurim do depict a great deal of singing and music in the process of bringing the first fruits. The idea also assumes women were more sensitive to music than men were, back then anyway.]

Bikkurim Show Us God’s Attributes?

Without a pause to indicate a new comment, he notes the Name of God appears thirteen times in our passage, and suggests it parallels the Thirteen Attributes of rahamim (a word I believe means “parental care” rather than mercy). Perhaps to support the linkage, he reminds us of Shemot 34, where God taught Moshe the Attributes in verses 6-7, and later in the section commanded Jews to bring bikkurim.

He does not explain. Most simply, he has made two points: a woman’s involvement in bikkurim is about music and the joy of music, and bikkurim connect us somehow to God’s Attributes. I see a hint of more. First, why would bikkurim focus us on the Attributes more than other mitzvot, and, second, what does that have to do with a wife?

[Wild speculation time. Bikkurim is our first reaction to the new crop, in agrarian societies a time to feel God’s bounty possibly more than any other point in the year; God’s giving us the food we need, year in and out, and/or giving some of us only minimal food, or maximal wealth despite our many flaws, puts on display the panoply of God’s Ways of treating humanity.

Given the common metaphor of the Jewish people as a wife to God’s husband, I can vaguely imagine he thought our ability to see the Thirteen Attributes in our harvests would lead us, the wife, to sing God’s full praises, with a deeper understanding of how God interacts with the world. The “wife” singing, is the epitome of the tov, good, of celebrating first fruits.]

Treat Your Poor Well

At the close of the declaration the Torah prescribes for a Jew who has given all his tithes properly, including to the orphan and widow, it has the Jew call for God to look down mi-me’on kodshecha, Your holy abode, to bless the Jewish people. Meshech Hochmah hears the echo of Tehillim 68;6, where God is described as the father of orphans, the judge on behalf of widows, mi-me’on kodsho, from His holy abode.

Some people help the poor, but at a lower standard of living than their own, he says, where God treats them like His own children, as it were, in “His holy abode.” The Jew here is saying he, too, did his best to give to the convert, orphan, and widow in ways to fill their lacks.

[The unusual phrase me’on kodshecha appears in other places in Tanach; Meshech Hochmah could have turned to one of them for insight. Nor is it clear to me the Jew has claimed he gave the poor at his standard of living. There are more weaknesses, but the next part of the comment I share—I am skipping his discussion of the higher heave the poor, widows, and orphans occupy—shows he was invested in this point, probably was not insistent his proofs work absolutely.]

Hol HaMo’ed Work

Shulhan Aruch Orach Hayyim 542;2 permits hiring those who have no meat or wine for the holiday to work on Hol Ha-Mo’ed, the intermediate days of a holiday. Meshech Hochmah brings that up and explains: the obligation to rejoice during a holiday is explicit in the Torah, the prohibition of work on Hol HaMo’ed was inferred by asmachta, Scriptural hints without the force of Torah law. To support this employee’s simhat ha-regel, joy in the holiday, the prohibition on work can be pushed aside.

A second indication: Rambam said a judge should deal first with a lawsuit involving an orphan, then with one involving a Torah scholar (who otherwise has priority). Rejoicing on holidays is pushed aside to eulogize a Torah scholar who passed away. By a sort of transitive property of pushing aside, Meshech Hochmah concludes we must allow an orphan to work on Hol HaMo’ed, because we would set aside holiday joy to eulogize a Torah scholar, and an orphan beats out a Torah scholar.

[It’s not clear to me the orphan’s priority in court cases necessarily carries over, nor that the orphan working would be the only way to secure simhat ha-regel, holiday rejoicing, for him or her.]

For whatever reason—I assume issues of his time—the Jew’s declaration he had given the widow and orphan combined with his call for Hashem to look down, sparked Meshech Hochmah to remind us of the importance of caring for the disadvantaged, ideally to bring them to our standard of living.

There Can Be Too Much Happiness

Years ago, I heard a talk by a man raising funds for his yeshiva, and he read Devarim 28;47 in a way I was sure was wrong but in fact was the mainstream reading. Meshech Hochmah reads it differently, comforting me that my younger self wasn’t only overly quick to reject that Torah scholar’s ideas.

The verse says the punishments of the tochaha will come our way because we will not have served Hashem in happiness and goodness of heart, by virtue of our having almost everything. The simple reading (the Rosh Yeshiva’s) has “with happiness, etc.” as part of what we did not do, we did not serve Hashem happily, despite having all we needed, and that was wrong of us.

Meshech Hochmah instead blames the happiness and bounty for the Jews’ failure to serve God. Hoshe’a 9;1 begs the Jews not to celebrate with other nations, who take overabundance as a reason for joy. Jews, in contrast, are supposed to be satisfied with what they need and no more, are supposed to have their goodness of heart lead them to experience enough as rov kol, almost everything. He cites Avot 4;5, who is wealthy, s/he who is happy with his/her lot, for Meshech Hochmah a call to not want more, to be happy Hashem gave us enough, not more than that.

There’s more to life than money. A wife’s joyous song could be the goodness that brings her full happiness, our proper use of bikkurim might show us the way to God and a character modeled after God’s, giving to the poor matters more than many other values, and the standard of service of God is to be happy as soon as it is enough, not want more and more.

About Gidon Rothstein

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