Thou Shalt Feel The Feels

Nathan Kamesar, Tribe 12’s friend and local rabbinical student, offers Jewish wisdom and timely teachings on our blog. 


“You shall rejoice before Adonai your God for seven days,” Leviticus says, in reference to Sukkot (23:40). You must be happy.

Can this be? Can God, or our ancestors, or whoever you believe composed our sacred texts, command a feeling? Is this a sensible approach to legislating Jewish law?

Thou Shalt Feel The Feels

It is far from the only instance of commanding an emotion in the Torah. “You shall love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might,” it says in Deuteronomy 6:5. You shall also love your “fellow” (Lev. 19:18), the “stranger” (Lev. 19:34), and, by implication, yourself (Lev. 19:18, 34).

Our sacred text does not stop with seeking to compel us to experience positive feelings; it instructs us not to feel negative feelings as well. “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart” (Lev. 19:17); “You shall not . . . bear a grudge against your countrymen” (Lev. 19:18); and, of course, perhaps the verse we’re most familiar with, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or … or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Deut. 5:18). A West Wing episode has fun with a storyline in which a U.S. town wants to abolish all laws except the Ten Commandments. West Wing staffers observe that the commandment that “you shall not covet” will be hard to enforce, observing further that if one was to be arrested for violating that law, they would probably also violate the commandment regarding bearing false witness.

So what are we to do with this? How do we wrap our heads around being commanded to feel a feeling? It is one thing to have our conduct prescribed for us. This happens all the time in Judaism (eat Kosher food; keep Shabbat; hear the Shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah). But a feeling? As moderns, we sometimes feel like we can’t generate a feeling that doesn’t come naturally to us even if we wanted to. (For a different take on this question, check out this interesting article on Haaretz.)

And yet there seems to be some wisdom here. For starters there is a debate about whether emotions are actually being commanded here. Perhaps what is being commanded instead relates to the actions that flow from those emotions.

Feelings Lead To Actions

Ancient notions of love, for example, often came up in the context of treaties between ruling tribes (suzerains) and subservient tribes (vassals) and, according to scholars like Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, “love” in the context of those treaties essentially meant “loyalty towards.” “We Canaanites pledge to love [that is, act loyally towards] King [so-and-so] of the Hittites,” for example.

(The subversive, radical component of the Torah was that it pledged this love, this commitment to act loyally, towards God rather towards a human manifestation of a ruler. Something unseen rather than seen.)

Similarly, the Hebrew words for covet (chamad), and crave (tit’aveh), according to Tigay, can also be seen as concerned about the actions that flow from these ideas. Chamad could instead be translated do not “scheme to acquire,” and tit’aveh as do not “long for.” When translated this way, we can see that the nature of the commandment not to covet is related to a concern that the offender will act on their jealous impulses. “Do not scheme to acquire” essentially means do not let it get so close that you might act on your jealous impulses or that you might actually do something that is harmful to your neighbor or your community.

Back To Sukkot Though…

By this logic, the commandment to rejoice on Sukkot is not a commandment that you literally must be happy; it is a more general statement regarding the sorts of activities that should be taking place during Sukkot: have festive meals; invite people over; dance — carry on activities that, even if you are not happy, are associated with joy. It is a festive time of year for the Jewish people because of the ancient ingathering the harvest; act as though you are feeling consonant with the spirit of your people, even if you are not. (Or, if you have to sit out one year because you are really not up to it, so be it. But know that these are the sorts of activities that will be happening around you.)

The idea that when feelings are commanded, actions are called for is a very plausible reading of the text (perhaps even the most plausible). But I think there is a more interesting, more radical reading available to us as well.

Now Is the Time to Nurture Your Joyful Wolf

Perhaps the Author(s) of this text are indeed centrally concerned with how we as a people feel — what emotions we are experiencing — and the text is indeed instructing us to do what we can to be in control of our emotions — to open up our internal passageways to let the Divine light shine through.

Now, we know it’s not always as simple as that. If we could tell someone who was experiencing depression or grief, to simply “buck up”… well, then the world would be a different sort of place. (And perhaps not an altogether desirable one). We know that’s not how things work.

But there are other emotions we can perhaps control to a limited extent. We may not be able to control what antagonizes us, but, with work, we sometimes have the ability to realize that we have been antagonized — to be mindful of what has coming over us at any given moment.

We might not have the ability to control how we react to a particular stimulus but sometimes we can control how long we dwell on something. Or, as implied by the statement in Leviticus 19, how long we bear a grudge. “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die,” an adage of unknown origins, is, perhaps what our ancestors were getting at.

Another folktale of unknown (perhaps Native American) origin illustrates this. A man says to his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.” The boy thinks about it and asks his grandfather, “Which one wins?” And the grandfather says, “the one you feed.”

Which brings us back to Sukkot and the commandment to rejoice for seven days. We can’t necessarily just be happy. We can’t necessarily just flip that switch. But we can nurture the parts of ourselves that yearn to be joyful. We can give ourselves permission to be happy. We can find the seeds of joy in our lives, tend to them, embrace them, and make them feel comfortable. After all, it’s a mitzvah. It’s a commandment.


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