Ask someone... anyone... okay, ask me why I enjoy an occasional glass of wine.
I would have a hard time describing my pleasure.
But ask a connoisseur what he enjoys about a particular wine and his answer might sound like the back label of a wine bottle.
"Ripe, rich and round, with lots of spicy, earth-scented black cherry and berry flavors, hinting deliciously at chocolate on the smooth finish."
Ask a world renowned expert and his answer might sound like this:
Discreet bouquet, elegant, soft tannins. The Pinot Noir has a very fine bouquet that is difficult to describe, best perhaps as reminiscent of raspberries or almonds. The taste/aroma is predominantly cherry/plummy – red cherry and black cherry, with berry elements, including strawberry and raspberry, and a hint of plum. The aroma can sometimes be even prunish. Its taste has lots of fruity charm and elegance.
Frankly, I wouldn't know a "prunish aroma" or a "raspberry bouquet" from an effervescent Gruner Veltliner varietal – whatever that is. But wine connoisseurs know exactly what these terms mean. They study the wines that they want to enjoy. The better they understand the complexities of the product, the more pleasure they derive from it.
Passover is coming again. The preparation isn't easy. Lots of cleaning, lots of shopping, lots of tolerating, spending and traveling. It all amounts to more work than we'd like and more frustration than we care for. And yet holidays are supposed to be joyous. How do we access that mysterious joy we all yearn for?
The surprising answer is: understanding.
Joy is magnified by the depth of our understanding.
You might enjoy seeing an unusual architectural design. "It's looks nice," you say. But an engineer, a student of architecture, the actual builder of that edifice who knows every nook and cranny, every support beam and every stairwell inside, will enjoy a far greater pleasure than you. He knows what went into the construction of every phase of that structure's birth. He understands the complexities of every facet of the operation and so, he appreciates it much more.
Your grandmother has cataract surgery. It's a miracle! She can see again! Of course she is thrilled and so is everyone around her. But the surgeon, who delicately furrowed through every fiber and nerve ending in restoring Grandma's sight, appreciates the accomplishment on a totally different level.
And so it is with every action and every good deed we perform on this Earth. The essential ingredient is the joy we experience when we do it. And that joy is magnified by the depth of our understanding.
Our greatest Sages understood the paramount importance of joy in our lives.
Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (d. 1933), known as the saintly Chofetz Chaim, would frequently render a heartfelt confessional, when he retired to his room. Witnesses testify that the tzaddik would isolate himself in a closed room in the attic of his humble abode in Radin, Poland, and speak to himself – out loud, for periods of two to four hours at a time. As if carrying out a conversation with someone else, he would vividly depict his own demise and the ensuing events that could one day take place.
They clothed me in shrouds and placed me gently in the dark container. The procession moved slowly and solemnly behind me. It was strange watching my own funeral.
When we arrived at the cemetery, the more able-bodied dug the deep grave for me and carried me, in my plain wooden box, to the front of my eternal underground chamber. Ever so gently, they lowered me down, as those gathered sobbed respectfully.
It wasn't more than a few seconds after I hit bottom, that the dirt began falling. It pounded against the casket with a loud thud...over and over again...until the cavity was completely padded with soil and clay.
I assumed that I would rest in peace now, but suddenly I heard a loud banging on the coffin.
"Who is in there?" asked the voice.
"Yisrael Meir," I answered.
"Come to the Heavenly Court. You must account for your deeds," instructed the voice.
I was then escorted by two ministering angels and soon stood before a very real tribunal.
"What have you to say about ___?" questioned the magistrate.
I answered as best as I could.
"And what about ___?"
Again, I defended my cause.
I then heard the judge call for anyone who could give testimony that I had performed mitzvot during my lifetime. And I felt the relief as angels appeared on my behalf and attested to the good I had done.
But when they completed their declarations, the evaluator then asked to hear about the misdeeds that I had perpetrated while on Earth. This time the prosecution took their turn and began enumerating everything I had ever done wrong. I knew I had lived a life that was good, so I was not prepared for the failings I was about to discover.
The bulk of the accusations that were filed against me were ironically related to the wonderful things I had accomplished. The chief complaint was why I had lacked true joy when executing all of those good deeds. I had been meticulous in my performance, but deficient in my emotional state.
Students and admirers would every so often steal their way to the stairway outside his room and listen to the unforgiving dialogue that Rabbi Kagan had scripted for his vehicle for self-improvement. It is said that more than one eavesdropper actually fainted while overhearing the tears of this icon of piety, as he chided himself for his paucity of cheerfulness while doing great things.
Passover is the same. We ask, "Why is this night different from all the other nights?" But do we truly understand the answer? Or do we watch the clock, wondering when we will eat, and bemoan our forthcoming sleep deprivation?
The joy is there for the asking. But, like the wine consumer, without preparation, without comprehension of the complexities of the Passover celebration, we will likely wallow in confusion and cheat ourselves out of enormous pleasure.
All the commandments are like that. They are given to us as vehicles for life satisfaction, but they are all too often seen as burdens or encumbrances to be tolerated or endured, instead of relished and savored.
- "Ugh – these prayers just seem endless and incomprehensible."
- "I just don't feel like listening to my elderly neighbor kvetch about his arthritic knees anymore."
- "Gosh it's cold out there. Why can't we celebrate Succot in May or June?"
It doesn't have to be that way. If we'd study the meaning and significance of everything we do and increase our mindfulness, the joy we'd experience would be truly endless.
Preparing for Passover may not be easy, but the joy awaiting those who understand what it is all about is indescribable.
And so it goes with every life experience. The only real way to feel the joys of prayers is by studying what they mean and where they came from. Then you can focus on their meaning and intent, and the prayers will invigorate you.
Relationships that lack understanding and depth will tend to disappoint the parties involved. People are complicated. That can cause contentiousness and angst. But delving into the layers of profundity contained within each person can alter that concern into a source of appreciation and enormous delight.
Indeed, by exposing yourself to the richness and intricacies that define kindness, music, Shabbat, love, pineapple, the galaxies or any of life's innumerable pleasures, you open yourself up to a world of infinite joy and satisfaction.
Everyone wants to experience joy. And we all know that rare individual who is truly happy and we wonder how that came to be. Sometimes we attribute his happiness to success or accomplishment. But the opposite is closer to the truth; he probably accomplished so much because he was happy.
It takes work to ponder and investigate the full substance of every ingredient in God's kitchen and to direct your consciousness, but the payoff is supreme.
Passover is coming again. The preparation may not be easy, but the joy awaiting those who understand what it is all about is indescribable.
It takes work, but it's worth it.