Let me ask you the question of the day: How tall does a Sukkah have to be? What? Sukkot is not for another 8 months. Well the sages of the Talmud (Sukkot 5a-b) determined the minimum required height of a Sukkah from the height of the Aron haKosesh, the Holy Ark in today’s Torah reading. The question the Talmud had was whether or not to count the height of the Kaporet, the Ark Cover with its Cherubim angels as well, or use other taller holy vessels to determine the minimum height of a Sukkah. In the end the Sages of the Talmud employed the well-known principle: Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, tafasta m’uta tafasta, “One who grabs too much ends up with nothing, one who grabs less retains what he grabbed.” The Sages settled on the lesser height of 10 tefachim (handbreadths)—about 3½ feet. Perhaps, the Sages reasoned, the lower required minimum height might encourage more people to build a Sukkah.
My friend and colleague, Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, told me how he thought about this principle of Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, “One who grabs too much ends up with nothing,” when he read in the Wall St. Journal a couple of weeks ago that Apple announced that in the last quarter of 2015 it had $18.4 billion profit. Did you hear that? In 3 months Apple made $18.4 billion! That’s more than any other firm in the world has ever made in 3 months. How did the market react? Apple stocks went DOWN! But why? Because $18.4 billion profit wasn’t enough! People had expected more! How much more could they have expected? You can buy a whole country for $18.4 billion!
This was followed by the news that Amazon had 4th quarter revenue of $35.7 billion—the largest quarterly revenue in its history. The result? Its shares dropped more than 15%, erasing more than $30 billion in market value. $18.4 billion in profit for Apple, $35.7 billion in revenue for Amazon…could it prove the age-old adage: Bulls make money, Bears make money, but pigs get slaughtered. Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, “One who grabs too much ends up with nothing”?
It’s the same in our personal lives as well. Whether it’s the “Baby Boomers,” the “Me Generation,” or the “Millennials,” society has conditioned us to think we can have it all—a wonderful mate, family, a good job, a big house and a great car. We’ve developed fantasy expectations. And as expectations rose, so did the sale of Prozac, Zoloft, Xanax and like tranquilizers to help deal with the stress this all puts on ourselves. The truth is…you can’t have it all! Only Gd can have it all and even He doesn’t always get His way either!
A good time to keep this in mind is tomorrow—Valentine’s Day. The question I’m always asked is: Should a Jew celebrate Valentine’s Day? It’s a simple question, but not a simple answer. In some ways Valentine’s Day is the one American holiday that presents the Jew with the most difficulty. Thanksgiving, July 4th, Labor Day, MLK Day, President’s Weekend—no problem. They’re for all Americans. Christmas, Easter—also no problem. They’re for Christians. But what about Valentine’s Day? On the one hand, everyone around us seems to celebrate it. 25% of all greeting cards sent throughout the year are Valentine cards. According to the Greeting Card Association, an estimated one billion Valentine cards are sent each year. One billion! And those who don’t send a card either don’t have someone they love, or if they do and they didn’t send a card, perhaps they no longer have someone who loves them!
Here’s my favorite Valentine’s Day joke. A guy walks into a post office one day and sees a middle-aged, balding man standing at the counter methodically placing “Love” stamps on bright pink envelopes with hearts all over them. He then takes out a perfume bottle and sprays them with scent.
His curiosity is getting the better of him and he goes up to the balding man and asks him what is he doing. The man says, “I’m sending out 1,000 Valentine cards signed, ‘Guess who?’”
“But why?” asks the man.
“Because I’m a divorce lawyer!”
Should Jews celebrate Valentine’s Day? As the late Gilda Radner put it: “It’s always something!” And in this case the “something” is the fact that Valentine’s Day was originally “St. Valentine’s Day.” St. Valentine was a full-fledged Christian martyr. According to one story, the Roman Emperor Claudius forbade young men to marry, thinking that single men made better soldiers. A priest named Valentine disobeyed the Emperor’s order and secretly married young couples. Another story shows Valentine as an early Christian priest who made friends with many children. The Romans imprisoned him but the children tossed loving notes between the bars of his cell window. According to tradition, Valentine was executed on Feb. 14th in the year 269.
Either way, it’s clear that Valentine’s Day is Christian in origin. And yet many of you in the synagogue this morning will be in big trouble if you don’t get a card or a gift for your beloved tomorrow. So let’s ask again: Can a Jew celebrate Valentine’s Day?
Answer: It depends! It depends if it is before 1969 … or after. Before 1969 I would have certainly said, “No. It’s a Christian holiday.” But after 1969 this is no longer the case because the Second Vatican Council removed Valentine as a Saint. Why? Because it confronted the reality that Valentine probably had never existed! That’s why Valentine’s Day is no longer referred to as “St. Valentine’s Day.”
The fact of the matter is, Valentine’s Day ain’t what it used to be because love ain’t what it used to be! Marriage ain’t what it used to be! The rate of marriage in the America is the lowest ever—even among senior citizens, so many of whom are now shacking up. 42 million adult Americans have never married and among those who do, the divorce rate is about 50%! There are a lot of reasons for all this—and no one need answer for their actions. But I think one of the reasons is, Tafasta meruba lo tafasta, when we expect too much from the ones we love, and end up with no love at all.
While I was in Israel I came across a list of personal ads in Israeli newspapers. Listen to some of them:
- Sincere rabbinical student, 27, enjoys Yom Kippur, Tisha B’av, Taanis Esther, Tzom Gedalia, Asarah B’teves and Shiva Asar b’Tammuz [all fast days]. Seeks companion for living life in the fast lane.
- Yeshiva bochor, Torah scholar, long beard, payos, seeks same in woman.
- Shul Gabbai, 36, I take out the Torah Saturday morning … would like to take you out Saturday night.
- Are you the girl I spoke with at Kiddush after shul last week? You excused yourself to get more horseradish for your gefilte fish but you never returned. How can I contact you again? I was the one with the cholent stain on my tie.
- Staunch Jewish Feminist, wears tzitzis … seeking male who will accept my independence, although you probably will not … oh, just forget it!
- [Here’s my favorite.] I’m a sensitive Jewish prince whom you can open your heart to and share you innermost thoughts and deepest secrets. Confide in me … I’ll understand your insecurities. No fatties, please!
You see, personal ad writers and most of us are looking for the perfect human specimen, thinking that the imperfect is “selling out” or “settling,” not realizing that the ability to live with the imperfect is the essence of personal growth. Whether it comes to our husbands or wives, boyfriends or girlfriends, parents or children … we have got to come to the realization that any relationship in which each partner is constantly required to meet idealized, romanticized expectations is bound to result in disappointment. And even if you found the perfect mate, why would he/she want you? Tafasta meruba lo tafasta.
In the Midrash we’re told that when Moses was commanded: “And they shall make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell among them,” Moses trembled—worrying how can he build a house for Gd? Gd responded, “Not by my standards but in accordance with your abilities.” Then when Gd started discussing the sacrifices to be offered Moses again worried: “From all the animals in the world, can I find one that will be appropriate for Gd?” And Gd said to him, “Don’t worry, all I ask is for a single sheep in the morning.” And when Gd told Moses of the need for the people to make an annual gift to the sanctuary in order for “each person to redeem his soul,” Moshe again worried … how can a person ever give enough to redeem himself? Once more, Gd said, “Just tell them give ½ shekel each.”
You see, Gd is smart; He doesn’t expect it all, He doesn’t even want it all … because He knows: no one has it all! Tafasta meruba lo tafasta. If expect to have it all, you are going to end up with very little. As the Talmud teaches (Avot 4:1): Eyzehu ashir ha-someyach b’chelko (Who is rich … he who is happy with his portion). This reminds me that every Shabbos when I walk into shul and see Henry Gallant I say, “Good Shabbos, how are you feeling?” He always smiles and says, “Everything’s great … I woke up, didn’t I?” We all have our aches and pains but let’s be satisfied that we are here. Tomorrow—whether you celebrate Valentine’s day or like me you don’t—be grateful if you have someone in your life. He/she may not be perfect, but neither are we!
Let’s all be grateful for what we do have and say with a full heart the words of our Siddur: Ashreynu ma tov chelkeynu, “How happy we are with our portion.” Let me tell you, my congregation, I’m so happy with mine!
This Shabbos many of you have come to help me celebrate my birthday. I was born on the 7th of Adar I. Adar I is an extra month that’s added to the Jewish calendar 7 of every 19 years so that the lunar Jewish year will adjust with the solar calendar. I checked the 200-year calendar in my office yesterday and there were just 25 Adar I’s since I was born. Hence today you come to help me celebrate my 25th birthday. Thank you for coming. I love you all. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis