Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mazal tov! Mazal tov!

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

Last night we celebrated my brother-in-law’s engagement. (To a Toronto girl, no less! I have now passed the first test of Toronto citizenship: I have mishpachah here on both sides of my family.)

And another simchah: This evening we’ll celebrate my bechor’s first siyyum, Gd-willing; we’ve finished learning Mishnayot Masechet Berachot together.

These s’machot have put me in mind to contemplate Vicarious Joy – the happiness we feel when someone else is happy.

I see two kinds of vicarious emotion:
1. I feel the same joy/sadness/revulsion/anger you feel, because I can imagine how I would feel if that happened to me;
2. I feel the same joy/sadness/revulsion/anger you feel, because you feel it.

The first, I think, is the easier one to feel; it’s natural to imagine ourselves experiencing what others experience, even if we have no direct connection to them. I heard a radio report this morning about Michelle Lang, a 34-year old reporter for the Calgary Herald, engaged to be married this summer and killed yesterday in Afghanistan, and my gut reaction was to imagine myself in that situation.

The latter is more challenging, I believe, because it requires of us that we adopt others’ emotional state. Logically, it means that I would be happy just becausehe was happy, or sad just because he was sad, even if I didn’t know why he was happy or sad, even if his emotional reaction to a situation is foreign to me.

The Torah (Shemot 4:14, as explained in Shabbat 139a) describes Aharon meeting his brother Moshe and feeling great happiness for him, after Gd selects him to lead the Jews out of Egypt. It says, “וראך ושמח בלבו,” “He will see you and be glad in his heart.” And the gemara says Aharon is rewarded with the honor of wearing the Kohen Gadol’s special breastplate upon his heart.

Rashi takes this gemara as saying that Aharon felt joy that Moshe had been selected, and he views the gemara’s praise of Aharon as praise that he was happy rather than jealous. But the Torah’s sentence itself – “He will see you and be glad in his heart” – suggests that Aharon’s joy comes before he actually knows anything about Moshe’s appointment. This read is cemented by Shemot 4:27-28, in which it is explicit that Aharon does not know: Gd tells Aharon to go meet Moshe, he meets Moshe, and then Moshe tells him about the appointment.

This suggests that Aharon’s joy is simply triggered by seeing that Moshe is happy. He sees that Moshe is glad, and therefore he is glad, even without knowing why. It’s pure. [I know there is one weakness in this: Moshe resisted being selected! אף על פי כן. His resistance was not sadness; it was humility.]

This also puts me in mind of another point: Our natural expectation that others will be happy when we are happy, and sad when we are sad. We expect it, I think, and we are disappointed when it is not forthcoming, and it makes us doubt our relationships. Interesting, but seder starts in a minute, so I’ll have to return to this thought.


  1. option 3 " Nafsho kshurah bnafsho"
    Joel Rich

  2. Not in my book-it means there is literally no boundary between your soul and my soul (no I and you)

    which is pretty ironic since those who know me well think of me as a total rationalist (but the few who know me really well will understand how much this phrase means to me)
    Joel Rich

  3. Joel-
    I'm not sure I'd agree with that explanation of נפשו קשורה בנפשו...