SERVING G-D WITH JOY
This coming Monday is the Matzeivah, the tombstone consecration of Rabbi Lord Sacks of blessed memory. It takes place at the Bushey New Cemetery at 2.15pm. It will be held outside and members of the community are invited to attend.
In Rabbi Sacks’ honour, leilui nishmato, let me share a thought from one of his essays in Covenant and Conversation on this week’s parasha. It comes from the volume on Ethics, published in 2016.
Rabbi Sacks distinguishes between happiness and joy. Happiness is certainly accorded high value in Judaism. One of our key prayers, said three times a day, begins with the words, Ashrei Yoshvei Veitecha – “Happy are they who dwell in Your House”
But more important than happiness is joy or simcha. Why should that be?
Rabbi Sacks explains that simcha is something we share. The festivals are described in the Torah as days of joy because they are occasions of collective celebration.
Happiness is an attitude to life, while joy lives in the moment. Rabbi Sacks quotes J.D. Salinger, who once said: “happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid.” Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others.
Sacks explains that Ecclesiastes or Kohelet, finds the answer to his question on the meaning of life when he realizes that it is not in the pursuit of happiness, but in the appreciation of joy:
“because joy lives not in thoughts of tomorrow, but in the grateful acceptance and celebration of today. We are here; we are alive; we are among others who share our sense of jubilation. We are living in God’s land, enjoying His blessing, eating the produce of His earth, watered by His rain, brought to fruition under His sun, breathing the air He breathed into us, living the life He renews in us each day. And yes, we do not know what tomorrow may bring; and yes, we are surrounded by enemies; and yes, it was never the safe or easy option to be a Jew. But when we focus on the moment, allowing ourselves to dance, sing and give thanks, when we do things for their own sake not for any other reward, when we let go of our separateness and become a voice in the holy city’s choir, then there is joy.”
Sacks further quotes Kierkegaard: “it takes moral courage to grieve; it takes religious courage to rejoice.”
It is one of the most poignant facts about Judaism and the Jewish people, that although our history has been shot through with tragedy, we have never lost the capacity to rejoice, to celebrate in the heart of darkness, to sing the L-d’s song in a strange land.
Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of Jonathan Sacks and ache for what we have lost. But then, I look at what we have and I realize we can all rejoice in the rich legacy of his writings and teachings.
Sacks himself once put it whimsically – but with penetrating accuracy: “We need to turn away from the oi and focus on the joy!”