Webster’s defines joy, or simcha as the emotion evoked by well being, success or good fortune, or to experience great pleasure or delight. Judaism defines simcha with a bit more nuance. Joy results from anticipating a bright future. We are a People whose survival in every generation is wholly reliant on miracles. By nature we are optimists. Our national anthem is Hatikvah (The Hope.) David Ben Gurion summed up our penchant for positive thinking in the famous phrase, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.” We maintain that simcha is the natural state of being alive. Just look at young kids who are playful, ebullient, laugh easily and recover quickly when they are hurt. They are ecstatic simply playing hide and seek, building a sand castle or eating ice cream. They haven’t yet learned to be morose, critical and pessimistic. Reclaiming joy requires learning to perceive God’s hand in our lives and rediscovering the precious inner child that we all possess.
Happiness is a solo pleasure, joy a group dynamic. We can mow over each other in our quest for happiness whereas joy is a communal state of flow with the Universe. Big, fat Jewish weddings are the ultimate joy-fests. Seeing a great movie makes you happy, doing a great mitzvah brings joy. Want to increase your joy? Help others in need, dance at a simcha, ponder the great gift of your friends and family. Do the things you love to do with those you care about. And if they are too busy, do them yourself!
Tonight I brought home Chinese food for the family. I battled traffic, waited for a parking spot, spent a fortune and then was rebuked by my daughter for buying things that she doesn’t like. In her angst she marched off to her bedroom without eating a bite. That doesn’t make me want to run out to a restaurant next time…let her eat cereal! The formula is simple: when we acknowledge the good in our lives, God gives us more. Unfortunately the converse is also true. God wants to give us the maximum pleasure possible! Gratitude is the key to the simcha treasury. Our responsibility to respond to the miracle of our lives with joy is a mentioned eighty-eight times in our Tanach (bible.) The terrible curses visited on the Israelites occur because they didn’t “serve their God with joy.” I’ve heard it said that parents are as joyful as their least happy child. So too with our Creator.
Joy doesn’t result from events or good news; rather it is a long term pleasure that springs forth from an attitude that every moment is a growth opportunity. When we expend negative energy over life’s little problems, we make “lack” our focus. In every situation we can learn to say “Gam zeh l’tova,” (this is also for the good.) Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say that joyous people are problem solvers, not problem sufferers. It’s a glass-half-full thing. Have you ever set out on an adventure with a complainer? Oy vey! It’s not too big a challenge to be a critic, to point out the things that “suck.” Why rock the joy boat with a snarky remark? A joy connoisseur learns to squelch the temptation to rain on the parade and instead is a ray of sunshine for everyone in his or her midst.
As we mature we accumulate years of hurt and disappointment that render us defensive and
numb. We erect filters that keep us from feeling life’s barbs too keenly in order to prevent further emotional injuries. As a result we slowly grow cynical and become harder to impress. With the media feeding us a constant stream of bad news, “fact-filled” gossip and clever criticism we can’t help but withdraw further into a stoic shell. This is the stubborn, invisible barrier that we have to carve away to regain access to that vulnerable inner child. One of the best ways to get back our joy is to reclaim our ability to cry.
I seem to have inherited my father’s ability to cry. Any nachas moment results in my father reaching both of his open hands up to stroke his tear-soaked face. Any mention of his late father whom he lost when he was only thirty-two brings on the same reflex. He typically claims that there must be smoke in the air. Most of the weddings I play with my band are for total strangers. I still crymy eyes out at every bedeken when the groom veils his bride and during the chuppah (ceremony under the canopy.) I’m so moved at the creation of a new “bayis ne’eman B’yisrael” (faithful home among the Jewish People.) I also relive the sweet memory of my own nuptials. Seeing me cry turns my kids inside out. They have to grapple with their own sympathetic tear response and they typically resist with all their might. I think it’s a good thing that they have learned that big boys do indeed cry. Robert Frost said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Our family had a beloved elderly neighbor who was like a grandmother to our children. Evelyn was a regular at our Shabbas table and frequently called me to reset clocks or install new gadgets. She was strong and sensible until she finally succumbed to congestive heart failure at the age of ninety-two. My wife and I decided that hers would be the first funeral that our children would attend. Evelyn’s offspring beautifully eulogized her but focused a dry-eyed list of anecdotes and her accomplishments in the community. Then I was asked to speak and sing Keyl Maley Rachamim, the prayer for the soul of the departed. I couldn’t help but sob throughout my short speech, setting off a chain reaction of tears throughout the mortuary. Even though she lived a full life I was broken at the thought of her leaving us. Sometimes we need permission to cry. I will never forget the vision of my children suddenly in touch with their own grief as they sobbed in the pews.
The crying reflex has much in common with intimate relations. You have to stay in the moment and remain connected. With tears, most adults train themselves to stifle the flow, to catch the emotion before it gets out of hand. To reclaim joy we have to fight that tendency! When we’re in the bedroom with our beloved we have to remain present or we can lose the drive. It’s easy to psyche yourself out and wreck the moment. And if you are trying to get your groove back once it’s gone, it may never return. So too with tears. Once we squelch that emotion we have missed the opportunity to have that cleansing catharsis that comes only after a crying jag.
It may seem counterintuitive but I believe that the ability to cry is on the same side of the continuum as the ability to feel great joy. This is what Stevie Wonder meant in his song The Joy Inside My Tears. This is the LIFE side of the spectrum, where we feel emotions deeply and allow our sensitivity pendulum to swing to the apex. The other side of the continuum is the DEATH side. This is typified by aloof behavior, stoicism, keeping it “cool.” Reaching the “brass ring” in the Joy of Judaism requires heroic efforts to choose life!
Last month I had a powerful reminder of the preciousness of tears and the fast connection between tears of pain and joy. Israel has always been the land of contrasts: adamantly secular vs. ultra-religious, arid desert vs. verdant swampland, right wing hawks vs. left wing doves. On a recent trip this dichotomy was never more pronounced. The people of “shalom,” living within the Land of Milk and Honey is in the midst of what is known as the “Knife Intifada.” Every day during my trip there was another horrifying incident, often on the very streets where I had been walking. I arrived in the country to perform, shoot a video and enjoy my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah. What a gift to be enjoying a simcha in Israel with my extended family. Just breathing the springtime air was enough to fill my soul with delirious joy. And then the sobering news, everyday.
I made several trips to the Kotel over the course of my two-week trip. Of course my prayers were sincere but I never felt that I was truly connecting. After all, with the ferocious randomness of these daily murders, I should certainly feel the pain of the nation and be crying my eyes out. But no tears came. Yes, the onslaught of bad news saddened me but inside I remained unmoved and therefore felt deeply unsettled.
Toward the end of my second week I enjoyed a pre-Shabbat mountain bike ride with my brother and nephew. After the adventure we quickly rode back to their neighborhood to get into the mikvah just before it closed. Taking a mikvah has been an Erev Shabbat minhag (custom) of mine for over a decade. I love the feeling of the sweltering water relaxing my muscles and easing my mind. I emerge purified and mellow, cleansed and ready to enter the realm of sweet holiness that defines our seventh day. Typically I dunk multiple times for an extended period, testing the limits of my breath, enjoying the stillness and silence underwater. This time I felt something shift. It was a tear welling up; a tiny hint of the emotion that I was hoping would come when I was praying at the Wall.
I immediately felt that visceral response of reclaiming my “manliness” as I choked off the impulse to cry. This failsafe measure is a vestige of a time, perhaps, when I was chased through the schoolyard as a second grader and then teased when I burst into tears. Or how I cried through my first and only fistfight. I won the fight but lost the battle; my peers would always remind me how I cried like a baby while I was swinging. I know many women that stifle the urge to cry. I know many more men who have lost the ability completely.
As soon as I went back underwater in the mikvah I felt the tears coming back. How interesting that as soon as I returned to the surface my mind wandered to happier, more “normal” thoughts. The third time I dunked I just let it flow. The tears came hard. Soon I was screaming underwater. At the top of my lungs. I don’t think it was audible in the mikvah chamber but some of the Chassidim were looking at me funny. Then I went back under and screamed again. Raw, primal, agonized screams. I screamed in anger for the victims. I screamed at the senselessness of the violence. I screamed for the legions of brainwashed souls who believe that killing innocents is a good deed. Then I screamed even more for the children who as of that afternoon will NEVER have their father back. They will never see him at the Shabbat table, never get his praise, never share a lifecycle event, never feel his loving hug. I screamed for the unspeakable damage that will outlast generations. I cried what felt like a gallon of tears for the widows, for the communities, for the Jewish People. Only NOW could I walk down to the Kotel and truly feel unified with that remarkably diverse assortment of my beautiful fellow Jews for the Friday night prayers.
My friends, I urge you to become connoisseurs of joy. We do so by reclaiming the ability to cry. Feel life deeply. Let reality rock your world rather than retreating in cynicism, self-medication or avoidance. Reclaim your inner child by recognizing the layers of filters that you have subconsciously erected to keep you safe. Focus on your blessings and respond to the myriad gifts in your life with an outpouring of gratitude. Do something that you love to do everyday. Participate fully in lifecycle events and increase your quota of communal commitment. Get plenty of sleep so that you’re not a grouch. And finally, learn all you can about your heritage so that you are filled with wonderment at your great fortune to be a part of God’s master plan of tikkun olam, the healing of the world.