Religious Courage to Rejoice

This message on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is from Rabbi Andi Berlin, guest rabbi for the Fairmount Temple clergy team, shared on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2019. We encourage you to comment below or to share the link to this sermon on social media such as Twitter or Facebook to continue the important conversation it engenders.

This last March, I stood outside a detention center in Florida for children seeking asylum in this country. After I returned home to California, I had a hard time allowing joy into my life, feeling I was betraying those children. I did not want to get together with friends, I did not laugh as easily or act as silly. And I refrained from posting anything on social media that joyful or fun. Until something funny happened in the land of Facebook. When my spouse and I celebrated our 19th anniversary this past Labor Day, I felt so proud of this person I married, that I posted an anniversary picture of Jon and me on Facebook. In the caption, I wrote how overwhelming the horrors of the world were and how awkward I felt about posting my personal joy. The post garnered 42 comments within two days. Many people I trust set me straight. A friend’s comment sums up the sentiment, “You are sharing something beautiful and good. People need that, and to see hope and what is worth fighting for.”

Our country is crying out in grief. Reading and listening to the news is a daily assault of shock, sadness, fear, and anxiety. Many in our nation are suffering from something called “compassion fatigue”; the state in which one begins to feel numb and disconnected to the suffering around us because of the sheer overwhelm of caring.

While compassion fatigue is most often experienced by those who work with the trauma and pain of others, the syndrome is starting to be noticed on a national level.

In today’s world, the cacophony of all that is broken rings so loudly, it drowns out everything else. And yet, there still is everything else. We still hear the cry of a newborn, laughter between friends.

Even as immigration policies get crueler and more dangerous by the day, we drive a long stretch of clear highway, and with the windows down feel freedom fly through our hair.  Devastating hurricanes, floods and fires warn we have passed the tipping point for maintaining human life on this earth, and above us a rainbow breaks brilliant or a sunset lights up a lake in color.  Children are imprisoned against freedom, and yet we lie in on a patch of sunny grass and hear shouts of play waft by our ears.

The dissidence of our daily lives against the overwhelming current of evil in our world can leave us unbalanced and anxious.

Sorén Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher, wrote in one of his journals a statement that could very well summarize the sociology of being a Jew, ““It takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.”

Grief is a necessary component in recognizing the injustice of the world, the pain that cries out for our action. We Jews are well acquainted with grief, both historic and modern. We live comfortably in the world of activism, of caring for the needy and crying for the vulnerable. Reform Judaism’s history, the history of this very synagogue, is bound up in the belief that is our moral responsibility to fight for justice.

It takes moral courage to grieve. Allowing ourselves to feel the depth of pain is a moral commitment to respond to that which drives pain.

The second part of Kierkegaard’s statement is more puzzling, “It takes religious courage to rejoice.”  Though Kierkegaard was not Jewish, his statement summarizes much of what our religion teaches us; that “it takes religious courage to rejoice.”

Judaism is known for its laws, and joked about for its guilt. We are a religion of action, we are commanded to DO.

With one singular exception. There is one emotion commanded in the cannon of Jewish text and tradition. Just one. And it is not the adjournment to “love thy neighbor.” That is a call to ACT, not to feel.

The only time we are commandment to feel is when are commanded to be JOYFUL.

The Hebrew word for joy is “sameach”. This is not to be confused with the word for “happiness”, ashrei.

We are not commanded to be “happy”. We are often commanded to be joyful. When wondering why, one need only look around the world for the answer. Happiness, or ashrei, is a sustained, long-term feeling of wellness. How can we be commanded to feel ASHREI when at different points in everyone’s life, either through internal or external forces, all is not well? But, in Torah’s wisdom, we recognize that even in the midst of sorrow and tragedy, it is yet possible to experience bursts of joy.

As we know, following the burial of a loved one, family members sit for seven days, referred to as shiva. Something strange happens, though, if the funeral takes place just before a Yom Tov…a holiday. In a normal shiva period, the family is exempted from the rituals of shiva on Shabbat, staying at home, covering the mirrors, refraining from rejoicing and singing. When Shabbat concludes, the family goes back to those very mourning rituals. However, if a Yom Tov, if a holiday occurs during the seven days of shiva, not only is the family exempted from the their restrictions, they never return to them. They do not have to go back their house of mourning after the holiday is over. Rather, they move into the next lighter phase of mourning; shloshim. Why does a holiday completely truncate these intense mourning customs?

The command of simcha, the command of joy, outweighs the action of sorrow. We are asked to find religious courage with which to rejoice. We are asked, even in the midst of the death of a loved one, to reach deep into our emotional depth and, for the brief and sudden time of the holiday, to pull out joy. We are asked to have courage.

Sometimes, it is even more difficult to have the courage to be joyful alongside the sorrow of others. When I have visited with those fighting a long-term illness, one of the conditions they complain about most is loneliness. One young woman in my former congregation articulated this for us. She was in her 20’s, receiving treatment for a rare Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Her friends, who were finding jobs, getting engaged, having children, made the same mistake many of us make. They avoided telling her the joyful parts of their lives, as if their joy would only remind her of what she was missing. She said to me, “It’s bad enough this BS has stolen so much from me, but now I’ve even lost their joys. It’s like a prison of depression with no window to the outside.”

When describing the difference between happiness and joy, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of Britain, explains, “Happiness is something you can feel alone, but joy, in the Tanack, [the Hebrew Bible,] is something you share with others.” He goes on to site passage after passage in which we are commanded to share our joy with those around us…in which we are commanded to have religious courage.

When Joanie Berger & Rabbi Nosanchuk shared Rabbi Nosanchuk’s diagnosis with all of us, they wrote, “And for everyone, please know we want you to continue to share the mundane and important details in your lives.” They know there is a tendency, with the best of intentions, for others to give space to those going through illness. But, they also know that their own joy increases when they are able to share the joy of others. Even in this moment, they are teaching us. The Berger/Nosanchuk family, like so many others, needs our religious courage to rejoice. They need our simchas, they need our laughter; just as they need our support and care.

We are commanded to have the religious courage to share our joy.

Just after Yom Kippur, we have a very unusual holiday. The undertone of many of our holidays is relief at having survived yet another tyrant rising up against us. However, Simchat Torah is quite different. Rather than commemorate a destructive event in our history, Simchat Torah celebrates one of the greatest. It celebrates when the Jewish people received the Torah. It is also the only holiday during which we are commanded to celebrate with a particular emotion: the emotion of joy.

Not only is Simchat Torah remarkable, the laws around it are stunning for their time. The sages recognize that there are times in our lives when it is more difficult to muster up joy. When the tension in the world, or the sadness of our lives, overrides other experiences, how are we to fulfill the commandment of rejoicing on Simchat Torah?

The sages answer by looking to simple things that may provide us with moments of joy, even when are in the midst of tragedy. They advise we break out timbrels, that we sing and dance. In today’s world, this is listening to music, singing along, dancing with others or by ourselves. The sages also suggest when we are not able to reap the bounty of our harvest, we pick the most precious and luscious fruit, even if it is just one, and rejoice in its existence. In other words, when we have little, when are struggling to set our table or pay our mortgage, just for a moment, we give thanks for something we do have. They also advise, that if we are “melancholy without cause”, we do as King Saul did, we turn to a trusted advisor to sooth us. This is the sages way of telling us that we need to seek professional help when our mental health needs it.

We are not only commanded to feel joy at Simchat Torah, though. We are actually commanded to build joy throughout the year. Think of it as running. For those of you who do not run, you would not go out tomorrow and run a marathon, it would be nearly impossible. Rather, marathon runners build up to this event over years. The joy-muscle is very similar.

Judaism gifts us the tools we need to build and experience joy. As each week, with its stresses and chaos and clamor, draws to a close, Shabbat descends upon us. We know Shabbat offers peace, a holy pause in the banality of day-to-day life. Shabbat also brings with it a bounty of joy, ours for the taking. The foods we eat, the rituals we perform, the connections we strengthen, all are aimed at increasing our joy on Shabbat so that we can carry some of its sweetness into the week.

But, the rest of the week is not absent its opportunities to stretch our joy-muscle.

We are adjured to say at least 100 blessings a day! What is a blessing if not a recognition of something for which we are grateful. Connect with a friend, say a blessing! Eat something particularly tasty, say a blessing! Notice a flower in full bloom, say a blessing! Someone is kind to us, we feel a breeze that cuts through a humid day, we Facetime with our grandchildren or finish a book, we say a blessing! We read a well crafted piece of journalism, the first snow begins to fall, we view an amazing work of art…we say a blessing! The miracle of saying blessings is that in order to say them, we have to pause long enough to realize we have experienced something joyful. If we do not know which blessing to say, just pause; notice the moment, smile with gratitude. This serves to increase the strength of our joy-muscle.

We are told in Psalm 100 to “Ivdu et Adonoi b’simcha….serve God with joy.” Ivdu has the same root as avadim…slaves. It implies labor. Joy is not necessarily something that comes easily. We labor at joy, we work for it. Ivdue et Adonoi b’simcha. Work with God for JOY.

We are also taught that joy is something that must be shared. We do not hoard it to ourselves. There are many types of sacrifices ancient Jews were expected to bring to the Temple when it stood; guilt offerings, offerings of transgression, first harvest offerings, peace offerings, and others. Most are treated the same, the meat from the offering can be enjoyed until it goes bad.

There is an exception to this, though. A well-being offering that is made after a simcha is treated differently. This post-simcha offering must be consumed on the day it is offered. On the surface, this makes no sense. It is the same meat, prepared the same way. Why could it not be eaten the following day as all the rest?

Sacrifices were usually large animals. After the Levites and the priests took their portions, there was still a tremendous amount of meat left over from a sacrifice. Families could feast on this meat for days afterward if it was smoked properly. However, if one has to consume one’s sacrifice on the very day it is made, the only way to do so would be to invite others to join in. A well-being sacrifice must be shared. Simcha, joy, must be shared. When a family has cause to offer a sacrifice after a simcha, the entire community got to rejoice with them. We see this today with Bar and Bat Mitzvah Kiddush luncheons and wedding meals.

Judaism mandates that we spread our joy around. Even during the most dire times in our history, Jews have gone to extraordinary lengths to celebrate our joys…making menorahs out of potatoes in the concentration camps to experience the joy of Hanukah, scraping together every meager morsel in ghettos to celebrate weddings, dancing subversively during programs when a book of Talmud was completed. Today it is so much easier for us to bring others into our joy. Most of us are able to host friends and families for large simchas, or help those who cannot. We also have social media, phones, video calls which can broadcast our joy and ask others to celebrate with us.

If I learned anything from my post about our 19th anniversary, I learned that others are craving reasons to rejoice. Especially now, especially now.

It is good and right to fight for justice, to fight for a world in which we can survive, to fight for everyone’s equal share in the bounty of this country. But, even as we fight for these, we deserve our joy, too.

While he was not religious, the Jewish poet James Oppenheim, articulated the Jewish belief that we need to both fight for justice and to experience joy in life. In his famous poem, Bread and Roses, he wrote, “Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses. – – – Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread, small art and love and beauty their trudging spirits knew.”

With the news assaulting us every day with a different horror, I know we can sometimes feel like we are living in a uniquely stressful time. Humanity has been here time and again, Jews have been here time and time again. Each time, we recognize we deserve both dignity and joy…”Sharing of life’s glories, bread and roses, bread and roses.”