Join a ‘virtuous cycle’ by embracing righteousness, joy

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham


There is a psalm for every day of the week, known as Shir Shel Yom.  Wednesday’s is Psalm 94, and it tells us, “For the law shall return to righteousness, and all those of upright heart shall follow it.”

Implicit is the reality that the law is not always righteous. As the Torah warns us, sometimes there is avale bi-mishpat, or perversion in law. Norms are essential for any functional society, but obedience to the law is never a sufficient religious posture. The truly pious jurist is zealous not so much for enforcing the law as for protecting the integrity of the system so that it can be an effective tool for righteousness.

There appears to be a connection between our parsha, Terumah, and last week’s that I like to think is no accident. Last week’s parsha, Mishpatim, focused primarily on civil law. The association of the ritual with the mundane exposes us to all enlightening insight into Judaism. The Torah considers them all one. In Mishpatim, we encounter the penalties for causing bodily injury, damaging property of others, sympathy for the poor and offering them free loans, closing with the Jewish people finalizing their commitment to do what God mandates.

Parshat Terumah deals solely with the detailed construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary considered to be the earthly dwelling place of God. We have the rules for a stable society, and we are given a sacred center to worship together in. Tyrants can establish stable societies (think Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi) but not in a moral and just way. We, the Jewish people, are shown that with justice comes righteousness as the next rung in a progressive approach to God.

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What personal strategies are helpful in making this approach?  Are they self-sacrifice, resolve, resistance and reverence? Yes, all of these are needed, but they alone will not suffice.

The final words of Psalm 94 raise the question of how one becomes “upright of heart.” When a person is despondent, it is hard for him or her to act with sympathy and compassion. But when a person feels joy, he or she can afford to lend support. And then, in acts of righteousness, one discovers a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and this leads back to joy. It is a positive feedback loop, or virtuous cycle, to practice righteousness and cultivate joy.

The way that I understand Reb Nahman of Bratzlav’s (1772-1810) well known dictum mitzvah gedolah lihyot bisimhah tamid is that it is a great mitzvah, or commandment, to always be joyous. Rabbi Shai Held, a well known Jewish professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, once told me that only a person who finds happiness to be challenging would call it a commandment.

Reb Nahman is well-known for his moodiness, much like the Psalms, and it is perhaps this swing of emotions that makes his writings so spiritually accessible. Still, I sense that what Reb Nahman means is that cultivating joy augments the practice of mitzvot, and cultivating mitzvot augments joy.

Let’s cultivate such joy in our community and beyond during the coming weeks of Adar.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham serves Congregation B’nai Amoona and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.