Why do we wish each other chag same’ach? It derives from the Torah command, v’samachta b’chagecha, “you shall rejoice on your festival” (Deut. 16:14). It sounds like a simple, straightforward mitzvah, and yet, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out, the Vilna Gaon regarded it as the most difficult commandment in the Torah.
Wiesel says, “I could never understand this puzzling remark. Only during the war did I understand. Those Jews who, in the course of their journey to the end of hope, managed to dance on Simchat Torah, those Jews who studied Talmud while carrying stones on their back, those Jews who went on whispering z’mirot shel Shabbat while performing hard labour they taught us how Jews should behave in face of adversity. For my contemporaries one generation ago, v’samachta b’chagecha was one commandment that was impossible to observe yet they observed it.”
This reminds me of a London family I knew which suffered a bereavement. The family patriarch, a highly respected public and communal figure, had died. The funeral was on Friday. One might have thought nobody would have been in the mood for Shabbat. But the widow had other ideas. In that home Shabbat was Shabbat and always had been. She made certain that everybody assembled on Friday night as usual. Candles were lit, Kiddush was recited, they ate, they sang z’mirot, they bensched. The simchah of Shabbat was hard to observe, but they observed it.
If the Jews whom Wiesel had described had decided that yom-tov was over for ever for them, if the London widow had said, “Shabbat has died with my husband”, one would have understood. But giving in to despair is not the Jewish way. To paraphrase a famous passage in Holocaust literature, a Jew says when necessary, “God, no matter how hard You sometimes make it to keep Your commandments, we are going to observe them nonetheless.”
Not that it is only tragedy that tempts us to find yom-tov difficult. It’s also a problem when things are going well and we are so taken up with our affluence and achievements that we can hardly spare a thought for God, for the commandments, and even sometimes for the festivals. The wheel turns from tragedy to triumph and we have to follow the Jewish pattern in both circumstances. The word chag is connected with chug, a circle. Whatever the wheel of life brings,it should be our privilege to observe the circle of the year.