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.
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.)
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!
© 2001 The AishDas Society