Deepening Our Joy with Empathy

Deepening Our Joy with Empathy

Our society is one of hedonic consumption. We earn, we buy, we consume, we feel happy. At its best, our money can contribute to happiness, well-being, and joy. And our tradition affirms its use for precisely this purpose. Yet it places a profound emotional boundary upon such spending: empathy.

As part of the 8th day of Torah readings for Passover this coming Shabbat, we read from Deuteronomy 14: 22 – 26 about a second tithe to be collected after a harvest:

You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field.

You shall consume the tithes of your new grain and wine and oil, and the firstlings of your herds and flocks, in the presence of your God in the place where [God] will choose to establish the divine name, so that you may learn to revere your God forever.

Should the distance be too great for you, should you be unable to transport them, because the place where your God has chosen to establish the divine name is far from you and because your God has blessed you, you may convert them into money.

Wrap up the money and take it with you to the place that your God has chosen, and spend the money on anything you want–cattle, sheep, wine, or other intoxicant, or anything you may desire. And you shall feast there, in the presence of your God, and rejoice with your household.

What a jolly sacrifice indeed!

In contrast to other traditions which extoll self-sacrifice, abstemiousness, and even outright self-deprivation, we learn that self-indulgence can be holy – to a point.

Right as we begin preparing for endless days of gluttony and epicurean delight, we are admonished to look beyond ourselves (Deuteronomy 14:27): “But do not neglect the [family of the] Levite in your community, for he has no hereditary portion as you have.”

The Jerusalem Talmud (T’rumot 1) further explains: “You must give him from what you have while he has not. This excludes ownerless property where your and his hands are equal.” One should be especially mindful to share the bounty derived from inherited wealth, for it may shape our outlook beyond our own awareness. Empathy must be at the forefront – in seeing, understanding, and caring for those who have no inheritance from which to draw.

The Rashbam recasts this line of comment in an uplifting way: “…let him share in your joy so that God, in turn, will have reason to be good to you.” Sharing of your joy will ultimately increase your joy. The boundaries that we place upon our own joy for the sake of others are but a path to greater uplift. The sacred and the lighthearted are not in tension when we bring them together in higher purpose.

Joshua Stanton

Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and a Senior Fellow at CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.

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