Thursday, September 25, 2008
Making a joyful noise unto The Lord
Happy Rosh Hashanah to the happiest man I know. His name is Yehuda Ferris, and he's the rabbi at Chabad House in Berkeley.
Like other Jews all over the world, he's busy cleaning his house and stocking up on sweets in anticipation of the holiday, which begins next Monday at sundown.
"No vinegar, green apples, pickles or herring," he says. "We'll only eat sweet things, to express our wish for a sweet year."
Rosh Hashanah is the start of the High Holy Days, which culminate 10 days later on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
Jews believe that during this period God decides the fate of the world.
"He's taking inventory," says Ferris. "Running the world is a business, like any other. If there's a profit, he'll keep the world going for another year. If not, goodbye world."
But God doesn't measure profit by dollars and cents. He measures it by good deeds, called mitzvahs. There are 613 mitzvahs in all. (Remember that number. It'll pop up again.)
Some mitzvahs are about our relationship with each other, such as caring for widows and orphans. Others are about our relationship with God, such as observing the dietary laws.
"Our job is to do as many mitzvahs as we can in this 10-day period. But they must be performed with a joyous heart, not out of duty," says Ferris.
So what makes him so happy?
He belongs to a branch of Judaism called Hassidism, which was founded about 280 years ago by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, better known as the Ba'al Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name).
The Ba'al Shem Tov came along at a time when Judaism was in the doldrums, after suffering a series of brutal pogroms in Eastern Europe. Many Jews responded to the outside pressure by turning inward and devoting their lives to studying the Talmud. But the Ba'al Shem Tov went the other way.
Though an eminent Talmudic scholar himself, he said a personal relationship with God is more important than book learning, and even a simple, illiterate person can have one.
He called that relationship "cleaving to God;" and for his followers, it's an ecstatic experience.
"Even something as simple as tying your shoelaces or changing your baby's diaper can bring you closer to God, if it's done in the right spirit," says Ferris. "If you stop and think about all the blessings The Lord has given us, it's just overwhelming. All you can do is laugh and sing and dance with gratitude and joy."
To Ferris, all the wonders of the universe can be seen in a single flower petal. It's the same epiphany that the hippies were trying to achieve by taking LSD back in the '60s. But Ferris doesn't need any drugs, and the high doesn't wear off after a few hours.
Rosh Hashanah will kick off at exactly 6:13 p.m. Monday with a joyful - even raucous - celebration at the Bancroft Hotel. The festivities will include prayers, jokes, singing, dancing and symbolic foods such as pomegranates, which are sweet to the taste and contain exactly 613 seeds. The partying will go on until the wee small hours of the morning.
Not everyone thinks such enthusiasm is seemly. Even in his own lifetime, the Ba'al Shem Tov was criticized by the rabbinical establishment, who said carrying on like this is undignified, even crazy. This is what he replied:
"Once, in a house, there was a wedding festival. The musicians sat in a corner and played their instruments, the guests danced to the music and were merry, and the house was filled with joy.
"But a deaf man passed outside the house. He looked in the window and saw people whirling around the room, leaping and throwing their arms.
"'See how they fling themselves about!' he cried. 'It is a house filled with madmen!' For he could not hear the music to which they danced."