Joy as Hopeful Resistance

by Rabbi Mike Moskowitz

תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא עָבַ֙דְתָּ֙ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְט֣וּב לֵבָ֑ב מֵרֹ֖ב כֹּֽל׃

Because you did not serve Hashem, your God, with gladness and with goodness of heart, out of an abundance of everything.
Deuteronomy 28:47

Although we generally don’t ascribe much value in the particular pagination of the Vilna Talmud, the rabbinic discussion of the relationship between the perimeter of a circle and the line that passes through its center is found in the 3rd tractate on page 14. Known for some time now as pi, it is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately equal to 3.1415. While this fact is something that can be proven with a tape measure, the rabbis offer a verse as a proof text to this geometric truth:

.כֹּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ בְּהֶיקֵּפוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה טְפָחִים יֵשׁ בּוֹ רֹחַב טֶפַח. מְנָא הָנֵי מִילֵּי? אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן, אָמַר קְרָא: ״וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת הַיָּם מוּצָק עֶשֶׂר בָּאַמָּה מִשְּׂפָתוֹ עַד שְׂפָתוֹ עָגֹל סָבִיב וְחָמֵשׁ בָּאַמָּה קוֹמָתוֹ וְקָוה שְׁלֹשִׁים בָּאַמָּה יָסוֹב אוֹתוֹ סָבִיב”.

Any circle with a circumference of three handbreadths has a handbreadth in diameter. From where are these matters known? Rabbi Yoḥanan said, the verse says [with regard to King Solomon]: “And he made a sea of cast [metal], ten cubits from the one brim to the other: It was round and its height was five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits did circle it all around”.[1]

The famous mathematician and Talmudic sage Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, also known as the Vilna Gaon, posits that the verse is intended to prove a point about the precision of language. He argues that the rabbis are bothered by the inaccuracy of an approximate “3 to 1” ratio, and want to know how it could be permissible to say something that isn’t exactly true.

The Gaon observes that the word for “line” in the verse brought as a proof text, is written differently from how it is read. This uncommon occurrence is known as a krie-kesiv, and is another medium for conveying additional teachings beyond the simple meaning. In this verse, the word is written “קוה- kaveh” but pronounced “קו kav”, reflecting the space between the absolute truth, and the way that we talk about it. The difference between “קוה- kaveh”, which has a numerical value of 111, to “קו kav”, which has a numerical value of 106, is the same as 3.1415 to 3. Dividing 3.1415 by 3, and 111 by 106, both equal 1.04716. This surprising degree of precision supports the position that it is ok to speak generally, when the specific is not being compromised, while acknowledging that something is lacking in our verbal accounting.

It is joy that is missing when let go of hope, which is appears in the shift from the krie-kesiv of “קו-קוה“ being read as either “line” or “hope”, like in the word “Hatikvah – הַתִּקְוָה”. During this month of Ellul we direct more attention to our attachment to this hope as a way of reconnecting with God. The special Psalm[2] that we recite in this season concludes with the verse קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל ה’ – חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ – וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל ‘ה – Hope to Hashem; strengthen your heart and God will give you courage and hope to Hashem. “חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ – strengthen your heart” also has a numerical value of 314, teaching us that hope is the more accurate reality than our perception of the current state of being.

When we try to create change in the physical world, if our actions do not have their intended effect, then it is reasonable to reevaluate the approach. In the spiritual world however, the same action with even slightly modified intentions can produce alternative results. The Talmud[3] offers the following advice for someone who hasn’t experienced their prayers being answered: pray again.

אָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא: אִם רָאָה אָדָם שֶׁהִתְפַּלֵּל וְלֹא נַעֲנָה — יַחְזוֹר וְיִתְפַּלֵּל. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״קַוֵּה אֶל ה׳ חֲזַק וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ וְקַוֵּה אֶל ה׳״

Rabbi Ḥama, son of Rabbi Ḥanina, said: A person who prayed and saw that they were not answered [should] pray again, as it is stated: “Hope to Hashem; strengthen your heart and God will give you courage and hope to Hashem”.

In the mystical tradition,[4] it is our joy and goodness of heart that is the “line” that connects our soulful prayers, deeds, and Torah study to the Divine Light, which then returns to illuminate our hearts and bodies with hope. “בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה – with joy” is an anagram for “thought – מחשבה”,[5] and when directed in a straight line to the Divine (ישראל – Israel – straight to God) the reflection back transforms us into new, better beings.[6]

Placing our hope for a better world in God doesn’t remove the responsibility on us to work for it. Just the opposite. In the prayer “Aleinu”, which literally means “it is upon us”, we declare: “עַל כֵּן נְקַוֶּה לְךָ…לְתַקֵּן עוֹלָם בְּמַלְכוּת שַׁדַּי – We therefore put our hope in You…to perfect the world as the kingdom of Shadai”. “Shadai” is one of God’s many names and means “sufficient”. This particular name of God has a numerical value of 314, which perhaps is coming to teach us that when our joy in doing our best is a constant, then hope in God is enough.


[1] I Kings 7:23.

[2] Psalm 27:14.

[3] Berachot 32b.

[4] Shari Kedusha 2:4.

[5] See Zuch V’naki.

[6] See Hachel Habracha for a beautiful explanation of this process.