The Shul Rabbi, for me, has always been someone of great admiration for many reasons, not the least of which is being able to emotionally withstand the rollercoaster of a day’s Rabbinical obligations. In a given day he may have to attend and even speak at a Brit, a Bar Mitzvah, a graduation, a wedding, and heaven forbid, a funeral. To experience this range of emotions in such a short amount of time is not unusual for a shul Rabbi. This must be very draining! How does he cope with this? Though fulfilling his obligations should lead to personal and spiritual growth, how can this growth take place under such stressful and demanding circumstances?
I believe the answer can be found at the end of our Parsha. In Chapter 6, Verse 6 the Torah writes that Hashem was saddened and pained in His heart at having made mankind now that the wickedness of Noach’s generation had come to full bloom. At this time, Hashem was prepared to erase mankind from the Earth. As we all know, Noach found favor in Hashem’s eyes and this, in effect, prevented the destruction of all of mankind. Rashi, quoting the Midrash Rabbah, tells us of a fascinating exchange between an Apikores and Rabi Yehoshua Ben Karcha. The Apikores tells R’ Yehoshua that this episode proves that Hashem is not all-knowing because it makes no sense for Hashem to regret something about mankind that Hashem must have known all along: namely, that man would reach such depths. If Hashem knows the future, how could he be saddened and, so to say, ‘taken by surprise’ by these events? Rabi Yehoshua responds by providing an analogy. He asks the Apikores if he has any children. If he did, he celebrated their births? The Apikores responds in the affirmative. Rabi Yehoshua then asks him why he celebrated a birth while fully knowing that some day the child will die as all people do. The Apikores responded, very naturally, saying that on a happy day one rejoices and that on a sad day one mourns. Rabi Yehoshua says that this is also the way of Hashem. Hashem, using human language, celebrates when we act in a noble fashion, and mourns and is saddened when we stray. Hashem did not avoid creating mankind despite the fact that Hashem knew that mankind would sin. What is the true message here? (At this point I would like to acknowledge that Rabbi Pruzansky’s Yom Tov shiur on Kohelet and my discussion with my Jewish Philosophy class at TABC have both helped me to formulate the following ideas.)
The true message seems to be that when one considers the future, while its events are inevitable, his knowledge cannot create his experience! Surely, we may know what circumstances are ahead based on what is before us, but this in no way diminishes the magic of the moment. At a happy time we exhibit happiness, and at a sad time we exhibit sadness. We go with the flow. We celebrate a birth knowing full well that parents of newborns are sleep deprived and we mourn the passing of loved ones even though we believe that they have ascended.
Perhaps we can understand Simchat Yom Tov this way as well. Some are troubled as to how the Torah can command Simcha, joy, on Yom Tov. Maybe it is this simple. It’s a happy time for our people – be happy! Reading Kohelet so close to Parshat Bereishit is not coincidental. In Chapter 3, Kohelet teaches the celebrated idea that there is a reserved time for everything. We can now see that this can imply that when a given incident occurs, we should pay attention to it in the present and not have our minds wander to other thoughts. In Chapter 7, Kohelet tells us that on a good day we should be absorbed in its goodness, and on a bad day we should reflect. Isn’t this telling us to rejoice in the good and to examine ourselves for teshuvah when things go worse? Towards the end of the chapter, Kohelet tells us that a Cheshbon, a reckoning, is found by having one thing lead to the next. This can mean that our lives can be accounted for only by living each day to the fullest. This brings to mind Hillel’s famous statement of, “If not now, then when?” This is normally taken as a recommendation against procrastination. Now we can also understand it as a message of daily guidance. If we don’t focus on the present and use it to the fullest, when else will we get the chance?
The Maharal, in Gur Aryeh, takes this one step further. He says that not only does the story in the Midrash tell us that Hashem created us while knowing that we will sin, but that our sinning is actually part of the natural scheme of things. You cannot have good without its counterpart of bad. Having good, indeed, mandates the existence of bad.
With these ideas we are now equipped to understand the praise of the Shul Rabbi.
The Shul Rabbi can pull off this delicate balancing act and survive the rollercoaster of emotions by focusing on the Mitzvah at hand. At the happy event he rejoices in the happiness of the event; at the sad event he joins in the sadness. All of these times, he knows, are ultimately brought about by Hashem. Additionally, there is no need to be concerned that he will feel frustrated and conflicted by these often opposing events because the Shul Rabbi knows that this wide range of human activity and experiences is part of the scheme of life that Hashem has designed for us.
We may not all be Shul Rabbis, but we can certainly learn from that which fuels their fire for religious service, and we should make an effort to let their fire kindle ours.