I came across a picture yesterday of me dancing with my mother six years ago at my niece’s wedding. Much has happened since then, including the death of my father and her isolation due to Covid-19. That picture reminds me of more joyful days. We could all use more joy during this often sad and anxious reality we are all now a part of. Where shall we find that joy?
We tend to think of joy as a singular, spontaneous moment in time caused by external factors we do not control; a sort of lucky surprise like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. But the religious understanding of joy views it as part of a process, the distillate of mindful living day, after week, after month, and even after decades of intention. The Hebrew word for joy is simcha, which most scholars believe is related to the word tzamach "to sprout, spring up, or grow." There is a different word for happiness. That word is ashrei and is related to the idea of being fortunate. In other words, as opposed to happiness which is the result of luck and external factors, sudden and fleeting, joy is the fruit of a slow growing tree.
My mom was so filled with joy in that moment she was dancing with me at her granddaughter’s wedding because that moment was not a moment, but instead, the result of decades’ worth of the commitment, anxiety, frustration, laughter, and love that are parenting and grandparenting; resulting in the ecstatic, proud moment when she knew down to her bones, that she had succeeded, after great effort, in assuring that her family and therefore she and my dad, would somehow live on.
Even joyful moments that seem spontaneous, are the result of careful planning and thoughtful living. The hora at that wedding was the result of months of effort and agonizing with a wedding planner, caterer, florist, band leader and more. That simcha was, in the original meaning of the word, a moment grown, tended, and nurtured over time. It is a thoughtful, fully conscious life that results in joy, not the other way around. Or as one person so perfectly put it, “I do not sing because I am joyful. I am joyful because I sing.”
Perhaps the most beautiful part of a life’s joyful song is that it cannot be sung solo. Joy in the Torah is communal. If joy was not a shared experience it was called something other than and less than joy—happiness, contentment, mindfulness, hedonism even, but not joy. Our ancestors realized they could be happy alone, but not joyful. A newly married man does not serve in the army for a year, says the book of Deuteronomy which we are reading now, so that he can stay at home “and bring joy to the wife he has married.” This week’s parashah ends with a reminder about the importance of the three major biblical festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) which are known as “The Three Legs,” meaning they were times when people made a pilgrimage to join their fellow Israelites from across the land to offer sacrifices in the holy Temple.
These peak moments were the result of careful planning, a several days’ journey to Jerusalem, and the sacrifice of abundant produce and valuable animals at set times throughout the year. There was nothing spontaneous about them. Some of those sacrifices were given to the priests who ran the Temple, some were offered up to God on a fiery altar, but much was eaten in family groups. These were among the handful of times each year when ordinary people feasted on meat; clans and tribes gathering in a massive, noisy, beautiful, family reunion barbeque with God. These pilgrimage festivals were named by the rabbinic sages as “Times of Our Joy.” Much like a birth, a graduation or a wedding—these moments of joy were the end result of considerable planning, thought, daily observance and commitment.
The idea of joy as a spontaneous, unplanned moment is not really within the religious construct; quite the opposite. We can stumble upon happiness, but joy is the thrill we feel when we gather with others to celebrate an arrival after a long journey lived with faith in the meaning of life and deeds of love for others.
It is no accident that joy and sacrifice are related in the Torah, because they are in life. Most people think of sacrifice as a net loss; giving something away that is precious. The words terrible and sacrifice are often uttered together. But the Hebrew word for sacrifice—korban-- implies just the opposite. It means to “come close” or “draw near.”
Ask most people what matters most to them in life and they will almost always answer family, work and some hobby, pursuit or cause about which they are passionate. Then, ask those same people what they sacrificed the most for in life and they will almost always give you the same three answers. From the biblical perspective, and ours if we really think about it, we end up feeling closest to the people and pursuits we sacrifice the most for. Through sacrifice we find the deepest, most joyful meaning and moments in our lives.
There is a famous story about the violinist Isaac Stern who was approached one evening after a concert by a fan. “Oh Mr. Stern” the woman gushed, “I would give anything to be able to play the violin as beautifully as you do.”
To which Stern replied, “Would you give ten hours a day?”
For those of us who seek joy, especially in the time of a pandemic with no end in sight, the sages would advise a commitment to daily prayer, generous deeds, and the deliberate counting of our blessings no matter how challenging a day or era might be. They would mandate mindfulness and a regular habit of investing time and love in the people closest to us. For only time and love shared with others can imbue our dance on earth with the singular, powerful, transcendent and transformative moments of joy that come from knowing we have earned those moments the hard way.
Love and Shabbat Shalom,