I came across this verse on a page of Talmud, knowing that while it's meaning seemed obvious from a surface glance, that our ancient scholars would play with it and engage in their usual mental gymnastics [BT Bava Batra 145b-146a]. Poverty creates misery so it's not hard to understand that all the days of the poor would be terrible. And we all know that while we associate poverty with one's financial circumstances, there are, sadly, many manifestations of it, as Mother Teresa famously observed: "Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." The second part of the verse is less self-evident since feasting is attached to being good-hearted instead of to wealth alone. This suggests that poverty and wealth, as understood here, are states of mind, attitudes about our lives through the prisms of scarcity and abundance.
At first, this verse in the Talmud is analogized to modalities of learning. Some methods and subjects of study are rich and energizing. Others may be routine or depleting. We all know the experience of being at a banquet of knowledge, where the presence of great minds at work helps ideas run fast and furious. This may happen in a wonderful class or course or while reading a stimulating book or because of an edifying conversation.
The exegesis of the verse then takes a quick and unexpected turn:
"This is referring to one who has a wicked wife. 'And for the good-hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who has a good wife." It seems that the rabbis focused on the terms "all" and "always." Poverty and bounty that are a daily and constant feature of life suggest other ways our lives are framed in the day-to-day. When core relationships, like marriage, are not working, every day is a struggle. When they are characterized by contentedness, they are enriching and hopeful.
Rabbi Yannai, however, treats this verse not as a statement of who is in your life but who you are; it's about personal identity: "'All the days of the poor are terrible;' this refers to one who is delicate. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' this refers to one who is pleasant." A delicate person in Jewish law is called an istinus; this individual is fastidious about cleanliness and order to a degree that can become an obstacle to personal happiness. In modern parlance, we might say that someone like this suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. Whether or not the rabbis believed that this worldview had reached the level of disease, they certainly understood that it could cramp one's joy and that a relaxed - chillaxed (as my children say) - approach to life and its many adventures will feel banquet-like in comparison.
This internal framing continues. Rabbi Yohanan says "'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this refers to an empathic person; and for the good hearted it is always a feast;" this refers to a cruel person. And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says, 'All the days of the poor are terrible,' this is referring to a person who has an impatient nature. 'And for the good hearted it is always a feast,' is referring to a person who is of a patient nature." It's not hard to understand why patience and impatience could lead a person to very different qualities of life. Rabbi Yohanan's interpretation is harder, more troubling and, ultimately, more profound. Too much empathy can create emotional poverty. I was recently speaking with a college student who beautifully described how taking on the burden of others was very important to her because it took them off someone else's shoulders. When I asked her if she was sure this transference took place, she said "Probably not. "When I asked her how this makes her feel, she shrugged and said, "It's exhausting."
Rabbi Yohanan is not suggesting that we be cruel and not compassionate. The Talmud famously says that if one is cruel then we question if that individual is indeed Jewish. Empathy should be part of the DNA of every one of us. But he does warn us about how compassion without boundaries can create deep unhappiness. Protecting oneself while still maintaining compassion is an art and an important skill so that we can keep on giving. Being drained or even exploited can lead to powerful resentment and anxiety.
Reading these various interpretations makes us wonder if we see life as a daily struggle or life as a delicious banquet, one we are invited to join. The banquet is not what makes us whole-hearted; because we are whole-hearted, we can see a banquet even when a simple meal is placed before us.