Rabbi Caryn Broitman
Rosh Hashanah 5781
As the book of Proverbs says (19:21): Rabot Machshevot b’lev ish. V’Atzat Hashem hi takum--Human beings have many plans. But God’s plan is what stands.” The Yiddish translation says it best—"a mentsch tracht un Got lacht--a person plans and G-d laughs.”
None of us could ever have imagined as we blew the shofar last year at the end of Yom Kippur and sang “next year in Jerusalem” that “next year” would actually be over Zoom. Of course, it’s true that there are “silver linings” here. In this format, you don’t have to come early to get a parking spot. But sometimes silver linings are a little too cheerful for my mood. What about the good old Yiddish way of dealing with things-- “kvetching”! Yiddishist Michael Wex wrote that if the Rolling Stone’s song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called “(I Love to Keep Telling You that I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction…”[i] That’s what “silver lining” means in Yiddish—it’s terrible but on the other hand we get to complain about it.
So let’s allow ourselves, in good Jewish tradition, at least a little kvetching. We’ve earned it. What we are living with is hard. We want to be together with community, friends and family and hug each other without fear of a dread disease. We want to sing in the same room and hear the harmonies and the wave of voices and the heat of bodies and yes, even come early for a parking spot because there is something wonderful about the building being so filled with people praying that our neighbors at the church and the school lend a hand and welcome our cars there.
And after a moment of kvetching, can we then feel the enormous weight of this moment and allow ourselves some tears? In a short seven months, close to 200,000 Americans have died and over six million have been ill from Covid. We or someone we know has lost someone dear. We or someone we know has lost jobs, health insurance, economic security or even food security. Many Americans go to work daily in jobs that carry risk—in hospitals and nursing homes, factories and warehouses, schools and post offices—showing up for work because they have to, or want to, or both—but fear for themselves or their families. “Essential workers,” we call them, though some have been considered “essential” only since March, working before or since then for a minimum wage and no health care.
Can we allow ourselves some tears? Are you grieving a loved one who has died, as I am grieving for my father? Are you or have you been ill or cared for someone ill with Covid? Do you carry within yourself the fear and dread of the disease, or the devastations of fire and floods, or the truth that our democracy is frighteningly fragile? Can we allow ourselves some tears?
We are all holding so much, and I do want to cry. But I also want to share, that being here right now with all of you, even with an empty parking lot outside, but with our faces lighting the screen, I feel joy. What a joy for us to safely see each other and pray together. What a joy it is to show up for each other—and feel the comfort of our rituals and tradition within our community. What a joy to cry out and say—“We will not let hard things stop this congregation from celebrating the New Year. We will not let any obstacle stop us from affirming life and love and renewal, in the way we have been doing for millennia. We are here. “Hinenu.”
I feel joy, tonight, and I want to talk about what it means to find joy at the same time as finding oneself on the verge of tears. I want to talk about how the weeping and the joy are not so distant from each other, but are actually sewn together. I want to talk about how joy is not compensation for or escape from difficult times, but a kind of awareness that comes to us only with a deep sense of the impermanence of life—not only at this time but at all times. And I want to talk about how we can cultivate joy in a way that strengthens us for whatever may come.
“Joy” in Jewish teaching, is one of the highest spiritual experiences we can attain to. Yet paradoxically, it is constantly interwoven with themes of impermanence and mortality. Yom Kippur, the most serious holiday, and the one in which we contemplate our mortality and life’s fragility, is considered the most joyful! Called Yom HaKippurim in the Torah, it is said to be like the holiday of Purim—Yom HaKi-Purim.
Rosh Hashana is also an example of the interweaving of joy and sadness. Called in the Torah Yom Teruah, after the “Teruah” notes of the Shofar, the blasts themselves are a mix of yearning, loss and joy. We begin with one whole blast of Tekiya and then move to notes of brokenness--shevarim and Teruah. “Shevarim” literally means “brokenness,” and consists of three notes. “Teruah,” the nine small blasts, are called in Aramaic-- “yevava” or crying. We don’t end, however, with notes of brokenness. We end with the wholeness of the Tekiya and finally the overwhelming joy of Tekiya Gedola. No matter what our losses, we have within us the spark of God that makes us whole. That is the cry and the joy of the shofar. “Hinenu”, here we are, embracing our lives of impermanence, with joy.
There are many more examples—from the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding to the psalms of Hallel, whose joyful chorus of “Halleluya” is sung alongside verses such “min hametzar karati ya v’anani vamerchav ya—from the depths of distress I call to you and from the wide expanse you answer me.” In Judaism, the depth of joy can only be experienced when one has known mourning and loss. As Rabbi Art Green teaches, “joy is in celebration of the fact that we are still here, even in the face of all that vulnerability.”
Up until now, I have talked abstractly about joy. But as we know, joy is experienced most of all in its specificity. For the poet Ross Gay, that experience is called “delight.” Gay committed himself to write (not type) one delight every day for a year. He called his diary, The Book of Delights. He writes about such delights as seeing a Praying Mantis dancing, the high-fives of strangers, the bringing of a tomato seedling on a plane and watching everyone from the TSA to flight attendants, treat it as tenderly as a baby. Gay found that the more days went by that he noticed and wrote about delights, the more he could perceive and experience delight. Delight and joy are not something that happens to us, but rather it is an awareness we can cultivate by noticing the wonder around us in all its delightful particularity and impermanence.
I think of some of my own experiences of delight over these very difficult past few months—the stillness of a pond, the kindness of strangers, the baby goat near the farm stand check-out line, the big sunflower surprising me in my CSA bag, the three year old on a bike path with his mom greeting us as we bike past him with a big smile, saying “hello!” in the way that only a child who has not internalized fear of viral contagion could say. That’s a delight! The more we notice delights, the more they appear.
Gay also sees joy as having “everything to do with the fact that we’re all going to die.”[ii] He believes that it is the universal human experience of sadness and loss that enables a key aspect of delight and joy—namely, the connection we feel with each other. As Gay says, “If you and I know we’re each in the process, [of facing mortality, pain and sadness] there is something that will happen between us. There’s some kind of tenderness that might be possible… And that’s a joining — a “joy-ning.”
I felt that tenderness, as I listened to the story of Noriko Meek. Noriko was interviewed by her daughter, Miki, on an episode of This American Life called “The Show of Delights.”[iii] Noriko is 72 years old, and had lost her husband a few years ago, after his long and difficult battle with cancer. She was in deep mourning for four years. After he died, each morning, she said “I get up and I have this terrible pain in my chest. But then I just say, OK, I think I can make myself live to the end of this day. And that's all I thought about…I really thought my life was over.”
But at some point after a few years, she found a delight and joy in her life that she had never known. One day, she asked her daughter Miki if she noticed that she was glowing. When Miki asked what she meant sometime later, Noriko said “Because inside, I mean, I think I was glowing inside, just radiating joy. Just delight, you know?”
“This is not the mom I grew up with,” Miki tells us.” She was practical, frugal, and not a big fan of hugs, kisses, or elaborating on her feelings….” So Miki asks her mom…
“OK, so what does the word ‘delight’ mean to you? How would you even define that?”
“Delight is just like light your heart out, like ignite something, you know? At the moment, you just feel lightness.”
“So if you were to list what delights you, what's on that list?”
“OK,” Noriko says. “First thing in the morning I wake up, and I go to the bathroom, and my Toto toilet is warm. [She has a Japanese toilet with a warm toilet seat.] Yeah, and I just sit on it. It's just so warm. And I just feel I am so happy. I really feel it. I am so happy! And it happens every morning.”
Noriko had other experiences of delight. She began to travel for pleasure for the first time. Yet I noticed that the interview with her was aired at the end of January, when neither Noriko nor any of us were aware that Covid had already begun to silently spread in the United States, and would drastically change our lives. The plans Noriko had made in her newly found and much deserved delightful life would not be able to be carried out this year—or maybe even next year. “Rabot machshevot b’lev ish—Many are the plans of a human being...” How would she adjust and find delight during the pandemic, I wondered, when losses multiply and impermanence and uncertainty preside? I wanted to ask her, and fortunately for me, since our older daughter is a colleague of Miki’s, I was able to. I will read some of her answer.
“When [Miki] interviewed me, I had so many plans for this year, so much to look forward to. As a matter of fact, I purchased a huge 2020 calendar in October and filled each month with classes, concerts, special events and trips for the entire year.
“This year started out well as I had envisioned. . . . I had classes at the university, senior ballet class, Zumba class … etc. etc. Then, on March 12, a manager of our community gym came to our Zumba class and announced that the facility would be closed for a while.
“Gradually I have come to accept this strange time. . . I realize that this trying time will pass. . .it is wonderful that I don't have to hurry - I can take time to read and enjoy this slow life with no schedule. For example, when I take pictures of wild flowers on my hike, I notice that I am more mindful. I take time and pay more attention to the intricacies of each flower. Before the pandemic, I used to snap, snap, snap. No thought went into it.
“I appreciate every ordinary thing more deeply, which I had taken for granted up to this spring. . . . I have been working more intentionally and diligently in my yard. I cleared one area of weeds and created a Corona garden. My flowers are more abundant this summer - every morning they greet me and fill my heart with joy and gratitude.
“Someday I will get to hear live music in a concert hall. When it happens, I know that I will be overcome with a sense of appreciation to be able to directly hear music and see musicians play in front of me. Just imagining it brings me tears. I used to go to so many concerts but the very first one I get to attend after the pandemic will be very, very special….
“The only thing I can say is that I have been happy and content in different ways since the pandemic began…”
I felt so much joy reading Noriko’s letter. Her wisdom and her kindness were true delights. Her words reminded me of Mary Pipher’s essay, “The Joy of Being a Woman in her 70’s”[iv] in which she shared that “in this developmental stage, [w]e are unlikely to escape great sorrow for long. We all suffer…[t]hose of us who grow do so by developing our moral imaginations and expanding our carrying capacities for pain and bliss…. Many of us have learned that happiness is a skill and a choice…. We’ve acquired an aptitude for appreciating life. Gratitude is not a virtue but a survival skill, and our capacity for it grows with our suffering.”
Personally, I never hesitate to kvetch a little. It’s a part of my heritage that I embrace. But the other part of my heritage—joy and delight—is one that is going to sustain me. May all of us be able to feel this year happiness and contentment, even among our sorrows. May our awareness of the wonder and gift of life deepen and our experiences of delight, possible in each moment, multiply. May we radiate joy and compassion for all beings, as we pray for the well-being of all in our community, in our country and around the world.
May it be a Shana Tova U’metuka for each of us, and for everyone throughout the world.
[i] Michael Wex, Born to Kvetch (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005), pp. 2-3.