The Deep Power of Joy
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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
Moshe teaches us again and again that joy is what we should feel in the Land of Israel, the land given to us by God, the place to which the whole of Jewish life – since the days of Avraham and Sarah – has been a journey. There, says Moshe, you will celebrate the love between a small and otherwise insignificant people and the God who, taking them as His own, lifted them to greatness.
It will also be there, says Moshe, that the entire tangled narrative of Jewish history will become lucid, where a whole people will sing together, worship together, and celebrate the festivals together, knowing that history is not about empire or conquest, nor society about hierarchy and power; that commoner and king, Israelite and Kohen, are all equal in the sight of God, all voices in His holy choir, all dancers in the circle at whose centre is the radiance of the Divine. This is what the covenant is about: the transformation of the human condition through what Wordsworth called “the deep power of joy.”
Happiness, the philosopher Aristotle once said, is the ultimate purpose of human existence. We desire many things, but usually as a means to something else. Only one thing is always desirable in itself, and never for the sake of something else, namely happiness.
There is a similar idea in Judaism. The biblical word for happiness, ashrei, is the first word of the book of Tehillim and a key word of our daily tefillot. But far more often, Tanach speaks about simcha, joy – and this is different to happiness. Happiness is something you can feel alone, but joy, in Tanach, is something you share with others. In one of the most extraordinary lines in the Torah, Moshe says that curses will befall the nation not because they served idols or abandoned God but “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness out of the abundance of all things” (Devarim 28:47). A failure to rejoice is the first sign of decadence and decay.
There are other differences. Happiness is about a lifetime, but joy lives in the moment. Happiness tends to be a cool emotion, but joy makes you want to dance and sing. It’s hard to feel happy in the midst of uncertainty. But you can still feel joy.
And yes, life is full of grief and disappointments, problems and pains, but beneath it all is the wonder that we are here, in a universe filled with beauty, among people each of whom carries within them a trace of the face of God.
Kierkegaard once wrote: “It takes moral courage to grieve. It takes religious courage to rejoice.” I believe that with all my heart. So I am moved by the way Jews, who know what it is to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, still see joy as the supreme religious emotion. Every day we begin our morning prayers with Modeh Ani (I Thank), followed by a flurry of thanks. We thank God that we are here, with a world to live in, with family and friends to love and be loved by, and that we are about to start a day full of possibilities, in which, by acts of loving kindness, we allow God’s Presence to flow through us into the lives of others. Joy helps heal some of the wounds of our injured, troubled world.
- What is the difference between happiness and joy?
- Which do you think most people are striving for?
- How can you achieve joy in your life?
Sharing Joy with Others
by Rabbi Nicky Liss
In this week’s essay, Rabbi Sacks speaks about the power of pure deep radiant joy and how it can help heal some of the wounds of our injured, troubled world. Joy, he notes, unlike happiness, is something you share with others. And joy was a core part of Rabbi Sacks’ approach to life. As King David says in Tehillim (100:2) Ivdu et Hashem besimcha – “serve the Lord with joy” – and I felt this sense of joy on (at least) two memorable occasions with Rabbi Sacks.
The first was at the Rabbinic Council of the United Synagogue Conference in February 2013. I vividly remember Rabbi Sacks leading the inspirational singing at a late night Kumzitz. In between songs, he and our scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Hershel Schachter (Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University), spoke passionately about various teachers who had shaped their life journeys. That night was an example of pure deep radiant joy and helped us all think about our own rabbinic journeys.
Then, on a Friday night visit to Highgate later that year we experienced a Kabbalat Shabbat like no other, when Rabbi Sacks brought our community closer to Hashem with a heartfelt and beautiful davening. After Kabbalat Shabbat he got up to speak from the pulpit, but sensing the distance this created between him and the already enthused congregation, he then walked down the steps to the congregation, where he stood and shared powerful divrei Torah with us.
On that night, through both the davening and the words of wisdom he shared, we gained a sense of what Rabbi Sacks wrote in this essay about allowing God’s presence to flow through us into the lives of others.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Nicky Liss is the Rabbi of Highgate Synagogue, former Chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue and Director of the Centre for Rabbinic Excellence.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Liss now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks and why?
Rabbi Sacks launched his Ten Paths to God series in Highgate Shul in November 2018, and in his closing words to the first session of the programme, he taught: “Our task is to be true to our faith and a blessing to others: a blessing to others because we are true to our faith. To be a Jew is to bring redemption, one day at a time, one act at a time. Every mitzvah, every kind word or deed, every act of sharing what we have with others, brings the Divine presence into the world. By recognising the image of God in other people, we help to remake the world in the image of God.”
This quote is an example of the behaviour that leads to the pure, deep, radiant joy that can help heal some of the wounds of our injured, troubled world.
Can you share something you learnt from Rabbi Sacks himself?
There are so many lessons Rabbi Sacks taught us, but in this limited space, I will share just three messages that made an impact on me:
- The importance of finding hope in any situation.
- The ability to bring out the best in everybody.
- A true understanding of humility: “Humility, true humility, is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life’s grandeur and a willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it. (The Tablet, 1 April 2000, 451)”
As Rabbi Sacks wrote in his eulogy about the late Sir Martin Gilbert, “We will miss him deeply but as the Sages said, ‘his words will be his memorial’ and they will last forever.”
Question: From where in this week’s parsha can we find the custom that teaches us not to hold a wedding on Chol Hamoed Pesach and Chol Hamoed Succot?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
The passuk in Devarim 16:14 states “vesamachta b’chagecha” meaning, “and you shall rejoice on your festive days.” The Gemara (Moed Katan 8b) deduces that one should not marry on this day, and teaches us “b’chagecha velo b’ishtecha” meaning, “on your festive days, but not with your wife.”
Rambam (Hilchot Yom Tov 7:16) explains that one’s joy is so great on the day of one’s wedding, specifically because of their love of their spouse, that to hold a wedding on Chol Hamoed would create a case of “ein me’arvin simcha b’simcha” – “do not schedule two joyous occasions at the same time (Rambam’s Laws of Marriage, 10:4).
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks