When we consider religion we rarely think of fun or joy. Usually it is control, discipline, and awe. As we enter the period often described as the Days of Awe, I wonder what the value of being somber is.
There is an early tradition of combining joy with restraint. In Hebrew it is Gilu BiRe’ada, “Serve the Lord with awe and rejoice with trembling,” (Psalms 2:11). The Talmud asks, “What is meant by ‘rejoice with trembling’?… Mar the son of Ravina made a marriage for his son. He saw that the rabbis were getting too merry, so he brought a precious cup worth four hundred zuz and broke it before them, and they became serious. R. Ashi made a marriage for his son. He saw that the rabbis were getting too merry, so he brought a cup of white crystal and broke it in front of them and they became serious. The rabbis said to R. Hamnuna Zuti, at the wedding of Mar the son of Ravina, ‘Please sing us something.’ He replied, ‘Alas for us that we will die. Alas for us that we will die!’ They said, ‘What can we respond?’ He said to them, ‘There is Torah and there is Mitzvah to help us!'” (Brachot 30b)
Living a life according to values, behaving in appropriate ways, being aware of the ups and downs, the bad as well as the good, helps us cope with the challenges we face. It enables us to deal with impending death because we see a larger picture. If one only lives for pleasure then one is ultimately bound to feel let down.
It is like those Renaissance paintings of distinguished men with a skull in the background to remind them of mortality. Or “Et in Arcadia ego” of Poussin’s neoclassical paintings; death lurks in the Garden of Eden, too. The paradox is that one wants to enjoy life but we need to realize how transient it is.
So what is joy? What is happiness? The Hebrew word “simcha”, does not just mean being happy in the sense that, as the Beatles said, “Happiness is a warm gun”, or a hot bun, or a new car. When I hear people say they want to enjoy themselves and I ask why, I am told because it makes them feel happy. But that kind of happy is purely physical wellbeing. Important as it is, it fades as quickly as a good meal or a farewell kiss. Simcha is not just physical. It is physical linked to spiritual, a higher goal. It is a sense that one’s life has a purpose, direction, and meaning, that one is doing something valuable. That is why the Mishna talks about the rich man as being “happy with his lot in life”.
There is another Hebrew word, “Ashrei.” It too translates as happy but to the best of my knowledge it is only used in the metaphysical sense, being happy because one is living a good life, a considered life, a life with meaning. Isaiah 56 is more specific, “Happy is the person who keeps Shabbat.” Or in the words of the Psalm we say three times a day, “Happy is the person who lives in God’s house,” or “Happy is the person who trusts in God.” Being happy here, similar to being grateful, might not always be fun or even make one feel happy at all in the usual sense. Visiting the sick is not fun. Neither is listening to someone’s problems. But it is important and will give us a sense of doing something valuable.
The purpose of the coming serious Holy Days is to spend time in introspection, self-evaluation. It is not to feel guilty or bad, but to give one a sense of priorities. This does indeed help one cope with the vicissitudes of life. And having a ritual that imposes this can be very helpful. Rosh Hashana is not intrinsically a sad day. If one spends time assessing one’s values and priorities and comes out feeling that one is on the right track, it can give a sense of great joy and happiness, a feeling of physical wellbeing and of intellectual and moral self-justification.
Of course all of this could apply to most religions. What differentiates them is not necessarily in the goals, but rather in the ways prescribed to pursue and achieve them. Each religion has its own trials, its own special days, and its own subcultures and hidden agendas. I feel incredibly privileged, happy indeed, that I am an heir to the great Jewish religious tradition.
I rejoice in our very specific rituals, the strange sounds of the shofar that conjures up sad histories and happy ones. I enjoy the sense of historical continuity. I even enjoy the poetry of the service. Above all, I relish the challenge of examining myself, accepting my failures and faults, and considering if the targets I set last year were met and what new ones I need to set for the coming year. And doing it in the Jewish way will give me enormous joy and happiness on levels we don’t usually associate with those words. And that is the added value of being Jewish.