When I was a kid, my brother and I would spend a week or two each summer with our uncles in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We had four uncles that lived in Cape Cod, but one of my mother’s brothers in particular took the reins of our vacation, planning our weeks to be “jam-packed and fun-filled” as he would say. He had this way of telling us that the day he had planned would be fun in a way that felt like he was commanding us to be happy. “Today will be full of fun and you will enjoy it, dang it!” It sounds aggressive and strange, how can someone command you to have fun?! But of course, in the end, we did ALWAYS have fun. Those weeks on the Cape were the best parts of the summer, and in college, I even went back to live with that uncle for five full summers.
In this week’s Torah portion, G-d commands us to keep the Sabbath, explains how to properly observe the High Holy Days, how to celebrate Succot, Pesach, and Shavuot. After explaining Succot, the Torah says, “And you shall rejoice!” The 13th century “HaSefer Chinuch” – the Book of Education, which explains the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah – explains that “by nature people need joyous occasions in their lives. In Great kindness, G‑d established holidays on which we can experience joy in a holy context and express thanksgiving for the miracles G‑d has performed for us.” So, even though, by nature, people need joy, we also still need to be told when and how we are being joyful.
It sounds a little silly. How can we be told when and how we must be happy? Emotions cannot be commanded; they come and go without our own control. However, just as I always enjoyed my summers on the Cape, I also always enjoy celebrating Jewish holidays. Without these sets of rules on how to properly observe, they would be rather meaningless. Despite the abrasiveness of being told how to rejoice, actually acting out the proper traditions of the holiday, does indeed lead to rejoicing!
Even though we may not always appreciate being told what we will or will not enjoy, when it comes from someone who truly loves you, like a family member or G-d, chances are, they’re right. You will enjoy your vacation, your holiday, your Shabbat. May you all find a joyful heart when needed. Amen.