Judaism has numerous words for particular ideals; there is the tzadik, the chasid, the ba’al teshuvah, etc… But does it have a word for idealism itself – for the inherent value of a burning desire to pursue an ideal?
This question is quite important. If there is no word for idealism in lashon hakodesh, neither in biblical Hebrew nor rabbinic idiom, how can we argue that Judaism has such a value?
I think we can identify such a term. And our story starts with R’ Saadia Gaon’s analysis of laughter.
It happened that Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva were walking along the road and heard the sound of the Roman masses from Pelitus, one hundred and twenty mil away. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They asked him, “Why do you laugh?” He said to them, “And you, why do you cry?”
They said to him, “These pagans, who bow to images and bring offerings to idolatry, dwell in security and tranquility, whereas we — the house [that is] the footstool of our God has been burned by fire. Shall we not cry?”
He said to them, “It is for that reason that I laugh. If this is how it is for those who violate His will, then all the more so for those who perform His will!
One time, they were ascending to Jerusalem. When they reached Har HaTzofim [the first point from which one can see the Temple Mount] they rent their garments. When they reached the Har HaBayis, they saw a fox leaving the [site of] the qodesh ha-qodashim [the innermost sanctum of the Temple]. They began crying, but Rabbi Akiva laughed.
They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He responded, “Why do you cry?”
They said to him, “The site about which it is written: ‘The foreigner who approaches shall be put to death’ (Bamidbar 1) — now foxes walk there, and we shall not cry?”
He said to them, “Therefore I laugh. For it is written, ‘I called upon reliable witnesses — Uriyah the Kohen, and Zechariah ben Yevarecheihu’ (Yishayahu 8:2). What does Uriyah have to do with
Zechariah — Uriyah [lived] during the First Temple [period], whereas Zechariah [lived] during the Second Temple [era]! Rather, the verse hinges the prophecy of Zechariah on the prophecy of Uriyah. In [a prophecy of] Uriyah it is written, ‘Therefore, because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field,’ (Mikhah 3) and in [a prophecy of] Zechariah it is written, ‘There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem.’ (Zechariah 7) So long as Uriyah’s prophecy was unfulfilled, I feared lest Zechariah’s prophecy will not be fulfilled. Now that Uriyah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zechariah’s prophecy will be fulfilled.”
They said to him: “Akiva, you have consoled us; Akiva, you have consoled us.”
- Makkos 24a-25b
When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, his students went to visit him. He said to them, “There is great anger in the world” [referring to Hashem's giving power to the Romans]. They started to cry, except Rabbi Akiva who laughed. They said to him, “Why do you laugh?” He answered them, “And why do you cry?” They said to him, “Is it possible that one sees the scroll of the Torah in pain, and we do not weep?”
He responded, “It is for that reason that I laughed. As long as I saw my rebbe, that his wine did not turn sour, his flax did not get smitten, his oil did not spoil, and honey did not crystallize, I could say that perhaps ch”v rebbe had received his world [now, not in the world-to-come]. But now that I see that rebbe suffers, I am happy.” [Rabbi Eliezer] said to [Rabbi Akiva], “Did I neglect any matter of the Torah [for which I now suffer]?” [Rabbi Akiva] said to him, “Our rebbe, you taught us, ‘For there is no righteous man on earth who does good without sinning.’ (Koheles 7:20)”
There are three famous stories associated with the fall of the Temple in which R’ Akiva laughs: upon hearing Romans on the attack miles away, upon seeing foxes running in and out amongst the ruins on the Temple Mount, and when he witnessed R’ Eliezer’s martyrdom. And in all three cases the Sages ask why, how can he cry at such an apparently inappropriate time?
R’ Saadia Gaon defines laughter as the reaction people have to a sudden realization of an underlying truth. (It took me a while to craft that statement, even so, you may need to reread it once or twice.) Interestingly, Robert Lynch, an anthropologist recently studying the topic of humor by experimenting as a stand-up comic, reached a similar conclusion:
He recently conducted an experiment that proves this. He had volunteers listen to an edgy, stand-up comic named Bill Burr.
“He has a joke about why men make more money than women for doing the exact some job,” Lynch says. “The punchline is, ‘I’ll tell you why. In the unlikely case we are both on the Titanic and it starts to sink, you get to leave with the kids and I get to stay. So call it a dollar-an-hour surcharge.’”
Lynch also gave the volunteers a psychological test that measured their unconscious gender attitudes. What he found was that volunteers with traditional gender views — people who believed women ought to stay home, rather than go to work — laughed harder at that joke than volunteers with more progressive views.
“People’s implicit beliefs, unconscious beliefs and preferences, matched what they found funny,” Lynch says.
A joke, in other words, is like a little brain scan: When we laugh, we reveal what’s inside us.
Lynch thinks evolution may have hardwired a sense of humor into our species because laughter serves as a signal. When you and I laugh at the same joke, we signal to each other that we share the same values, the same beliefs. This may be why people all over the world want friends and romantic partners who share their sense of humor.
In another experiment, Lynch sought to understand the connection between laughter and the psychological trait of self-deception.
Self-deceivers are people who don’t see their own values, motives and beliefs clearly.
“I simply gave people a self-deception test and measured their facial expressions in response to a stand-up comedian,” he says. “And there was a very strong association between the two.”
Self-deceivers were less likely to laugh.
It made sense to Lynch: You laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs. If you’re out of touch with your own values and beliefs — as self-deceivers are — you’re less likely to find jokes funny.
– NPR: “An Anthropologist Walks Into A Bar…” by Shankar Vedantam, 6 Aug 2012
Humor is a sudden realization of truth, and so, when R’ Akiva suddenly saw a truth, he laughed.
R’ Saadia adds that “simchah” is the kind of happiness associated with laughter.
According to R’ SR Hirsch’s usual etymological rules (see also R’ Matisyahu Clark’s “Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew”), /s-m-ch/ would be a more intensive/active form of /s-m-h/. The latter, R’ Hirsch tells us, is the root from which we get “sheim” (to name). Understanding something is underlying reality does fit that relationship to naming it.
The mishnah tells us, “Eizehu ashir? Hasamei’ach bichelko.” (Who is wealthy? One who is samei’ach with his lot.) The ashir is happy with what he has because he knows why he has what he does, and why he doesn’t have what he doesn’t. He understands why this lot is distinctly his.
R’ Saadia Gaon continues by explaining that “yesharim” (straight ones) are those who see through to this inner truth, who head straight for it without taking detours or compromises. Which is why “Or zaru’ah latzadik, ulyishrei leiv simchah.” (A light is sown for the righteous, and simchah for the yesharim of heart.) mitzvos are the means: “Pekudei Hashem yesharim, misamchei leiv…” (The appointments of Hashem are yesharim, they bring simchah to the heart.) The yashar sees mitzvos as pekudim, appointments. Calling him to a higher role.
So I would like to suggest “yashar” as the term for idealism. R’ Saadia’s description seems to fit someone who goes straight for the fundamental truths, ideals, without compromising with “the needs of living in ‘the real world’”.
“Ivdu es Hashem besimchah” (Serve Hashem in simchah) is to serve Him while keeping the ideal in focus. The person who is oveid besimchah is yashar. However, the person who is still struggling toward that ideal and isn’t there yet is also an idealist and also yashar – someone who is heading straight toward the goal. Being besimchah means having the ideal in sight. Being yashar means working toward that ideal – whether or not you have it fully in sight yet.
For three of the four occurrences of the alef-beis in megillas Eichah, the acrostics in chapters 2 through 4, the letter pei precedes ayin. Why?
Chazal relate this to the first calamity of Tish’a B’av, the meraglim (the spies sent by the exodus generation to Israel). They put their peh before their einayim, their mouths before their eyes. But the meraglim didn’t lie; they did describe what they actually saw. There really were giants and strong walled cities and abnormally huge fruit, etc…
What they lacked was simchah – knowledge of the underlying truth. Without that the meraglim reconstructed the evidence and reached a conclusion totally opposite from reality. They saw, but they were blind.
The Sifri writes (as quoted in Rashi on parashas Matos 30:2) that Moshe Rabbeinu alone was able to say “Zeh hadavar” (this is the idea), other prophets only had “Koh amar Hashem” (“like this”, not “this”, G-d said). Prophecy only comes when the person is besimchah; the ability to see “koh” is from a position of simchah.
Which brings us to parashas Devarim and megillas Eichah’s cry “Eichah?” (How can it be?) which the gemara relates back to G-d’s call to Adam, “Ayekoh?” (Where are you?) Hashem didn’t ask Adam for his only for his location, but also “Where is your ‘koh‘, your ‘like this’, the ideal you pursue? Without “zeh divar Hashem“, without even “koh amar Hashem” there can be no ish yashar. Only the eichah of those who refuse to see. The pei preceeds the ayin. The sin of the meraglim survived down to the generation of Yirmiyahu. Which is why Chazal worn us “when Av arrives, we reduce in simchah“. The events confuse us, it’s hard to feel G-d’s presence, and so the Shechinah too is in exile.
“Venomar lifanav shir chadash al ge’ulaseinu vi’al pedus nafsheinu“. (And we will say before Him a new song, on our freedom and the redemption of our souls. Passover Haggadah)
Who says Hallel? Hallel is reserved for the revealed, the obvious, miracle. The daily hidden miracle doesn’t get Hallel – aren’t even allowed to get Hallel. One who says Hallel every day is a labeled a heretic. (Shabbos 118b) Hallel is said besimchah, when one can clearly see the fundamental truth. As it says in Tehillim, and included in Shacharis for Shabbos and Yom Tov, “Ranenu tzadikim Bashem, layesharim navah sehillah.” (Tzaddikim rejoice in G-d, for yesharim, tehillah” – from the same /h-l-l/ root as hallel – “is pleasant.” Which is then elaborated in Nusach Ashkenaz, “Befi yesharim tis-hallal…“
Rashi on Taanis 15a comments that a yashar is on a higher plane than a tzadik. And the Netziv notes that Chazal call the book of Bereishis “Seifer haYesharim“. The value of pursuing the ideal is a core message of an entire book of the Torah! Our forefathers are praised as being yashar in particular. Which brings a totally new meaning to Hashem’s statement to Avraham: “because [only] from Yitzchak” – who is named for laugher! – “shall be called your offspring be called yours” (Bereishis 21:12).
This progression, from the “zeh hadavar” of parashas Matos to the “Eichah?” of Devarim and Tisha’ Be’av, leads us to this weekend – Tu Be’av and Shabbos Nachamu.
The haftorah opens “‘Nachamu nachamu ami’, yomar E-lokeichem.” (‘Be comforted, be comforted, My people’, your G-d will say. Yeshaiah 40:1) Nechamah is being reconciled with something that had happened because one understands it had a purpose. It is a part of “samei’ach bechelko“, understanding that there is a point to what one doesn’t have. Returning from the bewilderment of suffering and being able to look back upon it in context.
The navi goes on a bit later (40:3) to say, “A voice calls, ‘In the wilderness, prepare the way of Hashem; in the aravah, the desert, make yashar the path to our G-d.’” To take that nechamah, and use that regained understanding as motivation to be yashar in our avodas Hashem.
Mesechtes Ta’nis ends with a quote from R’ Shim’on ben Gamliel, that there are no holidays in the Jewish calendar greater than Yom Kippur and Tu Be’Av. Note that one is a return to Hashem from something we did, the other returning to Him after the incomprehensibility of what He did.
On Tu Be’Av, when we recover simchah after the Three Weeks, was when women tried to find a husband. And each told their prospectives not to put the peh before the ayin but to look for the woman’s real qualities. “Charisma is a lie, and beauty is vain, a woman who has awe for G-d – she shall be praised (tis-halal).” (Mishlei 31:30) “Give her of the fruits of her labors; and they, the things she makes, will praise here – viyhaleluha, again the notion of hallel! – in the gates.” (ibid 31) “Go out and see, daughters of Tzion, the king Shelomo in his crown which his mother crowned him, on the day of his wedding; on the day of the simchah of his heart.” The Talmud asks, “What is the day of the simchah of his heart? The day the Beis Hamikdash was built.”
Be comforted, everything we have been through and are still going through is so that that day can again come!