Joy in Bad Times

Blog image - Joy in Bad Times

Last week, just before Shabbat, a former student called me from the States. We talked for a while and then he asked me, “What does one do about simcha in times like these?” 

This is such a hard question.

Who has not thought of this when, sometime over the past two months, you’ve had reason to celebrate. Not just to let loose and relax but to rejoice over some personal or family or communal celebration? An engagement, a birth, success at work, finding a job: life as it goes on is not characterized only by stupid drivers and IRS audits, but of many, many joys, large and small, strung together to make mornings wonderful to wake up to. 

I wake up in the morning with that freshness of spirit, only to remember that we are still living a nightmare. I think of fallen soldiers, our youth being cut down like wheat in the fields of the south, our young people in captivity, children orphaned, and the atrocities perpetrated against our people. I think of the presidents of elite universities who refuse to take steps to protect their Jewish students, soulless ghouls who tear down posters of captives being held in the terror tunnels, shameless expressions of antisemitism renewed only 80 years after the death machines of fascism decimated the Jewish population of Europe - and my morning freshness dies on the stem. 

We create a new normal for ourselves, and… I wrote at first “that’s a sin,” then I went back and erased it for being so stark. But I do think it is a sin, if at the same time we do not remind ourselves of the nightmare. We must do something, act - because, my friends, these are times of which history is made, and the eyes of our children, our friends, the world, and Hashem are upon us.  

And doing something, responding to what we are living through in a clear and unequivocal way, gives you the right to experience simcha. 

Jews are no strangers to blending tragedy and simcha. At weddings we remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, we juxtapose Yom Ha'Zikaron to the wild celebrations of Yom Ha'Atzmaut, the list goes on. Internalizing the nightmare allows us to be awake to the joy. 

About 2700 years ago, after the destruction of the First Temple and the return of some of the refugees to Judea, Ezra and Nehemiah gathered the people in the square in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem. It was the first day of Tishrei, the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Ezra chose this moment to renew the brit between Hashem and Israel, and he created a symbolic Mt. Sinai experience, reading the Torah out loud to the entire assembled people. The scene is worth reading: 

[Ezra] read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching….  

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up.  

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground.  

….[and] the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places.  

They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading. Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.  

He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the LORD is the source of your strength.”  

“For your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.” 

This year, this Chanukah, is a very special Chanukah. Over two thousand years ago when our people were being threatened by a culture that seemed so strong, so vibrant, so overwhelming – we stood up for our beliefs and our people. We were alone in the world, vastly outnumbered and surrounded by darkness. The Chanukiot that we light are a reminder that even in a place of great darkness, we have a greater light. It is a mitzvah not just to light the Chanukiah, but to stay in its light for a measure of time, to sing, to play, to enjoy the sight of it… 

“For your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.”