Rabbi Ora asked me these questions: “What is a metaphor/image that speaks to your experience of simcha (joy), and why? And what, if anything, is Jewish/spiritual about simcha for you?”
From my personal experience, and based on the work I do with people everyday, Joy seems to emerge when we return to our natural, birthright qualities of our true Selves. I believe our natural qualities include curiosity, compassion, creativity, playfulness, and the capacity to feel joy. I believe we are all born with a light inside, connected to G-d, the universe, to life itself. That light carries and supports our freedom to express who we are. A light that allows joy to flourish, if it is allowed to shine unencumbered.
Yet life seems to carry hurtful experiences that appear to dim or almost extinguish our light, sometimes beginning in the womb. On the other hand, when children receive unconditional love, when people around them value what they bring, their uniqueness of expression and thought, children don’t need to take on beliefs like feeling they are too much or not enough. They can shine their light with joy and perhaps carry that into adulthood. Simultaneously, our culture and even our religion can impose burdens on us as well. Of course, Judaism carries many gifts, rich in tradition: learning, sacred rituals, and resilience. For me, I realize that I have taken on intergenerational burdens tied to my understanding of what it means to be Jewish. I have always felt like I have to look over my shoulder for my own safety, and perhaps I need to hide, like our ancestors did in caves.
A week or so ago, I looked inside myself and asked my system if I carried such legacy burdens. I saw myself sitting at the Passover table as a young child. I heard a voice in me say, “we must suffer” and when I asked why, it said, “in order to survive.” I looked around the 1970s table. I was with my family, no joy and little unconditional love, but there was more heaviness. The story of Passover. The gift of freedom came with a cost – the suffering we endured – slavery, witnessing plagues, death of sons, seas swallowing people, angels shushed for cheering, and we decided to never go into the promised land. To this day, my system has never allowed me to go to Israel, as if I still carry the burden of slavery in Egypt. This young part of me showed me the burdens that cover my joy during Passover, burdens I still carry today.
This inner experience happened the same day I saw Rabbi Ora’s email inviting me to give this dvar torah. The depth of the timing felt sublime. I asked myself: Where is the joy? Where is the joy of the Jewish people? Is it in Israel, where people feel they have a homeland? I cannot say. Is it in the siddur? The one I was forced to get through in Hebrew school? No. As I explored this topic more deeply within myself, I saw the contrasting Jewish experiences I have had in my life.
You see, Joy was in the siddur at Summer camp. There was a loving Jewish community in which I lived for four weeks at a time. I went to both sessions, so eight weeks of Joy. We prayed every morning in a circle, swaying together, our voices filling the Beit Am. The dancing, the discussions, the ease of being together. Joyfully singing the birkat hamazon after every meal. The machine of Society gone, our burden of suffering paused. The sadness carried in the songs we sang felt more like a beautiful sadness, one that tied us all together. Then it was time to go home again, back to Hebrew school where I wanted to say to the Rabbi, “This isn’t being Jewish! This is a fashion show. We are running through the motions. No kavanah. It’s not from the heart.” Ironically, when I studied for my bar mitzvah, which was shared by another boy, an old school rabbi showed up for me and helped me learn my torah portion. He literally slammed his fist on the desk and shouted with passion, “You have to sing loud, and slow, From Your Heart!” One of the best moments of my Jewish life – sitting across the table from this mysterious rabbi. He felt like a wizard to me. And there we were on my bar mitzvah day, the other boy racing through, I drummed up my courage and sang from my heart.
At camp, on kabbalat shabbat, we heard a story of a young boy who lived in an orthodox village. He walked into the synagogue one day, the old men davening in a murmur. The boy, not knowing the prayers, started singing what he knew, the Hebrew alphabet. He sang the alphabet with joy, no words, a nigun from the heart — and he was hushed by the men, shaming his natural love for G-d. The Rabbi stopped the service and shared what he saw: the boy was the only one truly praying.
In our Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, I see heart connection often. Rabbi Ora is a model for us. She allows her natural light to shine. Her words take us to deep understanding and compassion and she shares her heartfelt niguns with us all. One of our congregants led us in a nigun over the high holidays, her heart open and her voice connected deeply. She let her light shine.
On this day we celebrate Simchat Torah with our new friends at Congregation Agudas Achim.
The torah itself seems to hold the light that we all share inside, I feel its resonance. It’s not the words or the stories inside the torah scrolls, it’s the gestalt of it all that resonates with me. And today we roll it back to the beginning, B’reshit, when G-d sparked the first light of creation, the light that is within all of us. “G-d saw the light that it was good.” Yes, when I feel my light and the light of others, it does feel good.
Our light may be covered, like the clouds cover the sun, but it is there nonetheless. Perhaps today as we roll back to the story of creation, the beginning of what we see as life itself, we can begin to unload the burdens we gathered along the way and those given to us by our lineage. Let the clouds part even briefly, so we can go back to our natural state and feel our light and the innate birthright qualities of that light. To me this is Joy, the return to ourSelves, and that is what I wish for all of you today.
The Jews of old had light, and happiness and joy — may it be so for us! Esther 8:16
Inspired by my ancestors and the work of Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems (IFS) Model and all the wonderful IFS leaders.