The Founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, sat down as he had so often, to respond to a letter of consultation, this one from the Rebbe of Pulno. Quietly, seriously, he set himself to the task of weighing every word so as to persuade the Rebbe of Pulno away from what the Baal Shem Tov knew was a grave error. When the reasoning took shape, it was roughly in the form:
“Dear and distinguished Rabbi,
I received your Excellency’s letter, and from its first sentences I understood that you believe mortification and self-punishment are necessary to reach God. This has shaken my deepest spirit. Following the counsel of God and His Shekhinah, I command you [How the Baal Shem Tov must have trembled at his own words!] to abandon such dangerous practices, the product of melancholy and depression. The Divine Glory is not deposited in the expression of mourning, but only where Joy prevails in the Mitzvot, in God’s orders. That is why Prophet Isaiah explicitly commands us in the text that became the Haftarah of Yom Kippur: ‘Mi besarchah lo tit’alam’ – ‘Do not hide yourself from your flesh’ – do not be indifferent to your own needs. Most distinguished Rabbi, you must change your path in God’s service.”
It is said that after reading this response, a deep cry burst forth from the Rebbe of Pulno, who from that moment on sought God only through Joy.
The Baal Shem Tov wrote these words to a man who believed that asceticism – distancing oneself from mundane things, from human needs – was the best way to reach God. The great Master of Hasidism fervently opposed such an interpretation of Judaism, and based his argument in the words of the Prophet Isaiah we read on Yom Kippur: “Mi besarchah lo tit’alam” – “Do not hide yourself from your flesh.”
The Baal Shem Tov, who created a revolutionary movement (like every other revolution, it ended up as reactionary and conservative) believed in the joy and enjoyment of all our human potentialities as the best, perhaps only way to properly serve God. Joining God is happiness and deep pleasure; to achieve it, meant creating a framework with those ingredients. In that vision, Joy is the fundamentally necessary vehicle that generates, creates and cultivates the best in us. It must involve a system of priorities to grade the really important things from the secondary and less important. In those first priorities the Baal Shem Tov saw the Love of God, the Value of Family and its strength, True Friendship. With his pure heart and infinite naïveté, the Baal Shem Tov probably could never have imagined the devastating race to material and wealth that marks our modern times.
We live in Societies that shower messages of intense hedonism upon us, a variation of the puerile and pathetic Hellenism of 20 centuries ago. We seek pleasure, especially “uncomplicated pleasure”, the kind that demands nothing from us, the kind of pleasure of which our part is only to receive. Our choice objects of pleasure are the most superfluous issues and matters. We stopped believing in the God of our forefathers, we are engulfed in an idolatry of skepticism and distrust of everything and everyone. Placing all our energies, what we have and who we are in frantic pursuit of the least important and most petty of goals, we forget the reason for our stay upon this Earth
The Joy of the Baal Shem Tov flows from the soul illuminated by its own growth and development. It is the true joy, the feeling that something superior was achieved, that we are able to put into action the sparks of God contained within ourselves. True Joy could not be further away from the demanding, destructive anxiety of our everyday materialism that has little and nothing to do with the happiness of which the Hasidic teacher spoke. In the world of material or trivial pleasures there is always an open window, the window of our dissatisfaction, our unconscious desire for a “more” than can never be satisfied.
Now that the Gates of Heaven are opening for the beginning of the Great Judgment in the Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and culminate in Yom Kippur, we must keep in mind that what society teaches us as most valuable – power, wealth, the need for endless consumption – is no more than a pale image of what we can really achieve and who we might really be. In these Days of Evaluation we must formulate radical questions:
* Are the priorities we set in our lives the right ones? Have we taken the time to set these priorities?
* Is this all we can do for ourselves and for our loved ones? Is there anything beyond the horizons we have set for ourselves?
* Do we really enjoy the gift of life? Do we bring happiness and joy to those around us?
The answers we give to these questions are the core significance of these High Holy Days to each of us.
May God inspire us to recover the meaning of true Joy, of authentic significance of Happiness, the emergence of our deepest Satisfaction, the manifestation of the best of our human Potential;
May God grant us continuing joy this New Year in the enormous pleasure that arises from the strength of our profound meetings with those around us;
May God guide us to join our efforts and prayers together to strive for and reach sublime goals and the highest heavens;
May God grant that in 5778 we invest our energies in strengthening the unity that restored to our People the glorious blessing of our robust, recovered national life;
May God grant that a fullness of blessings for ourselves
and for all Humankind will attend this New Year of 5778;
And may God grant us the continued joy of seeing
the development, growth and strengthening of everything we hold dear and value,
the State, the People of Israel, and our Maccabim all over the world.
With best wishes,
LeShanah Tovah ticatevu vetechatemu!
May you and yours be inscribed for a Good Year!
RABBI CARLOS TAPIERO
Deputy Director-General & Director of Education
Maccabi World Union