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Where do you find joy?

03/06/2022 10:00:17 AM


Rabbi Jamie Arnold

I went looking for a psalm, a song of gratitude and joy suited for the season.  A favorite ‘focus phrase’ or mantra came to mind: Ivdu et hashem b’simchah – which the Baal Shem Tov translates as “laughter and joy are themselves acts of divine service.”  I flipped through the pages (yes, I still prefer to flip pages rather than scroll through screens) of the Hebrew Bible [Tanakh] to find the verse but my eyes landed on another psalm instead, one decidedly less cheery.

Days vanished, bones charred, 
my body stricken and too afflicted to eat
A lone bird on a roof
reviled, cursed, eating ashes, drinking tears…

Oh my.  I go looking for a bit of joy and am instead confronted with a lone bird, afflicted, drinking tears.  I hope that I am the only one, the lone bird, feeling the weight of woes this season.  But I suspect not.  I read the lines again and again, reminded of sad news I have heard of late from some of you – a daughter struck by a car, a spouse stricken by illness, a child struggling with addiction and depression, a parent’s death.  These images and emotions mix with my own grief – the death of a friend, a pending divorce with Marti.  Add to these pains the banning of books in public schools and … and well, I almost forgot about my original search, for laughter, for joy.
Until I read on.

But a holiday is coming…

Yes, a holiday is coming.  And this psalm, Psalm 102, reminded me of an often-overlooked truth.  The pathways to the kind of enduring and exalted joy we seek goes through and not around the disappointments, struggles, and tragedies of this life.  Holidays like Purim and Passover do not avoid the grave threats of power-hungry demagogues like Haman, and dictators like a Pharaoh trying to perpetuate a slave-based economy.  With groggers in hand, we read in the scroll of Esther [Megillah] eight chapters of a nightmare scenario before we celebrate an unlikely redemption.  Around the Passover table, the jubilant songs of the seder come only after pages of pages of oppression and plagues in the Haggadah. 

In our quest for joy, we don’t avoid the hard-ships of life, we steer them, we sail them towards a promised land.  We suffer loss and grief because we love with fervor.  The extent of the grief parallels the extent of our love.  And, the depth of our sadness elevates our eventual joy.  

So, we tell the story of our ancestors (Israelite and American) and honestly confront the scars and sins of our past, not to ferment guilt or diminish our sense of pride.  We remember and allow ourselves to feel the pain of a legacy of enslavement, oppression, and genocide because this is how we cultivate compassion and inspire acts of lovingkindness.  Welcome the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.  And the stories of sadness and grief that we share as part of our holiday rituals are integral to and in service of our journey to joy.  Ivdu et hashem b’simchah.

And so, we feast.  And when are plates and wine glasses empty and our bellies and hearts fill, prior to offering a blessing following the meal [bircat hamazon], it is customary to chant Psalm 126, a ‘song of ascents:’ 

It’s like a dream – our mouths filled with laughter
our tongues with song…we will rejoice.
Those who sow with tears will reap with joy…
Explore the tears, journey through the sadness.
You will return with bundles of gladness and joy.

And so may it be.  And so it is.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!
Chag Kasher v’Sameach – Happy Passover!

Wed, November 30 2022 6 Kislev 5783