Being Happy with One’s Portion  

One way of avoiding
certain problems is to be happy with fewer things. There are people who can’t
imagine being happy without a big house in the middle of the city. Some people
need two cars besides, others feel deprived without a chauffeur. They can’t
understand how a ben Torah can live happily when, by their standards, he’s
missing so many of the material things of life that a person needs to be happy.
But he has something that they don’t have: A deep love of Torah. Torah is so
important to him that it’s the only thing he needs to sustain a sense of
happiness that endures despite the problems that life may bring. He may be
missing many things that another person might regard as crucial to happiness. But he doesn’t need them. And
because he doesn’t need them, he doesn’t have the problems that go along
with them: The financial pressures, the responsibilities, the breakdowns and
disappointments, etc.

Chazal tell us that there is no reward for mitzvos in this
world. So the main reward for mitzvos is in the next world. But most of the
parshas in the Torah that talk about reward for mitzvos refer to rewards in this
world: rain in the proper time, adequate food, etc. All the blessings are
physical things. The
Rambam explains that these are not the essential rewards for the mitzvah.
Rather, if a person does mitzvos, G-d makes it possible for him to do more
mitzvos by giving him an environment which is conducive to doing mitzvos. He’ll
give a person all the good things in this world if he does the mitzvos properly
and with joy. Why does the Rambam make joy one of the conditions for receiving
this reward? It would seem that a person who performs mitzvos with great care—even
if he doesn’t do them joyfully—would also deserve a reward that frees him
from the cares of life to do more mitzvos. After all, he does them well.

The answer, I think, is that if a person doesn’t do mitzvos
with joy, then he must regard other things (material things) as the source of
joy in life. And if that’s the case, it would not be good for him to have too
many of those material things. He’s going to use them as a source of
happiness, and get so involved with them that, rather than making it easier for
him to do mitzvos, they will distract him and turn his heart away from Torah and
mitzvos. After all, if those are the things that give him happiness, then those
are the things that are most important to him. But when a person finds his
happiness in Torah, giving him the material circumstances that enable him to do
mitzvos is truly a blessing, for he will use whatever he receives to enhance his
Torah life.

This, by the way, helps us understand Shemini Atzeres/Simchas
Torah. The celebration of Simchas Torah expresses our realization that we don’t
need anything but the Torah to be happy. That’s why Chazal refer to Shemini
Atzeres as a seudah katanah. In the course of Succos there were big seudahs
between G-d and the nations of the world—hundreds of sacrifices. On Shemini
Atzeres/Simchas Torah there was one: one ox, one ram. No more than that. Why so
many for the nations and only one for us. Why does G-d have a big seudah with
the nations and a small one with us. It should be just the opposite. The midrash
also points out that on Succos the number of sacrifices diminishes each day, as
a person might feed a guest when he wanted to make sure that he’d didn’t
stay around too long: steak the first day, chicken the next, then fish, then
cheese, then salad, until he got the point. But that couldn’t be the idea. G-d
certainly doesn’t want to get rid of us. The idea is that as long as there is
not a relationship to create the bond, external things are required to create
the bond. But once the relationship is so strong that it itself creates the bond
and the joy of being together, external things aren’t necessary. So when you
have a guest, the first day you don’t yet have a relationship, so you have to
give him food that is especially good, good enough to sustain good feelings. As
the days pass, and you develop a genuine relationship, the good feelings between
the host and the guest no longer depend on lavish meals. That’s why Shemini
Atzeres is a seudah katanah. For the Jewish people, the relationship to G-d
itself creates the bond and the joy of being with G-d. Their seudah with G-d can
be a modest one. They don’t need external things to make them feel close to
Him. All they need is the Torah. That’s Simchas Torah.