Joy

Joy – Rosh Hashanah 5767 (2006)

Years ago, a young woman whose spirit lay crushed under the weight of tragedy found her way to a therapist. He hoped that the sadness which consumed her could be contained; he could not imagine it being expelled, for the world had dealt too cruelly with her.

He thought to teach her a technique to gain control over her emotions, a technique in which he had much experience and a little too much confidence. Unfortunately, when he asked her to imagine an object – an object that he planned would inspire her to feel comfort and safety – he neglected to tell her to choose a teddy bear, a favorite blanket, or some similar item. You see, his technique built a bond between the imagined object and the felt emotion. So he grew increasingly confused when the more he encouraged her to relax, the less relaxed she became. Finally he stopped and asked, “What’s the problem?”

“This thing doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy,” the young woman replied.

“Why not?”

“It’s a watermelon!”

They both chuckled. Chagrined, he had her put the imagined watermelon away and start over, this time visualizing a stuffed animal. The proper ritual restored, things proceeded as planned, until a few minutes later. Suddenly the now calm and relaxed young woman, given the instruction to put the teddy bear away, burst into laughter.

“What now?” the therapist asked, unable to conceal his annoyance.

“That watermelon is still there!” she laughed.

In that moment, he understood. This young woman, the victim of so many tragedies, had regained the power of joy. Unplanned, unbidden, joy had burst back into her spirit; now, the healing could begin.

The therapist’s ritual had succeeded, but not in the way he expected. Instead of gaining control over the darkness in her life, the young woman had allowed herself to be touched by joy. From that day forward, she would always have the strength that comes from the vulnerability of opening oneself up to joy.

Joy.

According to August Wünsche, no language has as many words for joy as does Hebrew. The Rabbis enumerate ten different forms of joy in the Bible: Simchah, joy itself, plus rejoicing, gladness, song, breaking forth, crying aloud, exultation, great rejoicing, gaiety and shouting. Of course, no Rabbinic discourse can be complete without a disagreement, so some suggested that instead of shouting – Terumah – we ought to use Dizah, which means “jumping about like a stranded fish.”

Now wait, this is serious business here today: what does joy have to do with the High Holidays? What does joy have to do with Judaism? What does joy have to do with God? Isn’t joy just some frivolous feeling that, if we indulge ourselves in it, runs the risk of reducing us to a flopping fish?

No. Judaism is, after all, a religion of pleasure – how else could it be such a good source of guilt? It’s right in the Bible: we are told the only good a person can have under the sun is to eat, drink, and enjoy. But is that a prescription for simple pleasure, or joy?

By joy, I mean intense, ecstatic, or exultant happiness. Joy is a bursting forth of the spirit, an eruption of God’s pleasure into our lives.

One of the joys we are commanded to experience is the joy of bride and groom. Like most of us, I have been to a fair number of weddings, but recently I came to learn just what that commandment really means. You see, at this wedding there was a quality of joy that went far beyond the usual. For example, from time to time someone would break out in a mirthful niggun to celebrate, or to tease, but always seemed to be just the sort of thing that the moment required. There was more than just a romantic love in the room – there was a bursting forth of joy.

In fact, the best man’s toast summed it up elegantly: at most weddings, he reminded us, people were happy because they were at a wedding. The joy of those present was caused by the wedding – the normal state of affairs. Simply put, the wedding made people joyful.

But this was different. It was as if there was so much joy between the couple – and among all of us present – that a wedding simply had to happen. The joy was not, in this case, the result of the wedding; no, the wedding was the inevitable creation of the joy.

I felt the power of the Divine at that wedding. It was not the serene pleasure of a mountain vista, or the thundering power of an oncoming storm. It was not the passionate urge for justice; no, it was none of those things. What was it?

It was the sense that the whole community had been lifted to a higher, lighter plane. Our prayers were not only the traditional Brachot, but our songs, our cheers, our dancing was one big, cacophonous prayer to God.

The sages tell us that the only time we get to actually experience the Shekhina – God’s physical presence in this world – is when we are praying with joy. It is not just that God’s touch brings us joy, but that we bring God’s touch to us with joy.

If you’re like me, you don’t usually associate the High Holidays with joy. No, for me these holidays are infused with a solemnity that deepens relentlessly to the awe of Yom Kippur. And yet – is not today the birthday of the world? Are we not here to celebrate the goodness of God’s creation? Are we perhaps a little too formal, a little too solemn, in our demeanor?

Where do you make room for Joy in your life? Remember, in Jewish law it is a sin to pass up a harmless pleasure that you have not experienced! When was the last time you tasted a new spice? Or the last time you pushed a youngster on a swing, and cheered with them as they swooped up into the sky? Have you really tasted the sweetness of this holiday, savored the apples and honey of the spirit?

Here we are today, all gathered together. Ready to recall the trials and tribulations of the past year, and to pray that next year is a better one. Worthy prayers, all.

But don’t forget the old Bubbe maisse: One day Moishe goes up to Avram and says, “Avram, how are you?”

“Oh, Moishe,” Avram says, “not so good.”

God overhears this, as God hears everything, and says, “Not so good? You think this is not so good? You want not so good? I’ll show you not so good…” and all sorts of terrible things start to happen to poor Avram.

Then one day Avram goes up to Moishe and says, “Moishe, how are you?”

“Oh Avram,” Moishe says, “Never been better.”

And God says, “Never been better? You think this is never been better? I’ll show you never been better…”

May all your days of the coming year be blessed with a taste of joy, so that you may be lifted by God’s touch and become a blessing to us all.

L’Shanah Tovah!

© 2006-2007 James F. Brulé