Sermon: On Joy

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 25 February 2017

Even though I had the privilege of launching Alyth Arts Week with a talk about the art of Alyth, the truth is I know almost nothing about art.

Take me to a museum – the older the contents the better – I am in my element; take me to an art gallery and I become a stranger in a strange land.
Especially when it comes to abstract stuff.  It’s not that I don’t try.  But, Turner prize exhibitions leave me bemused; the Guggenheim in New York, the Tate modern: to me, these are amazing buildings, the architecture inspires, but what‘s inside is utterly beyond me.

So it is something of a surprise that I keep returning to a quote from an abstract artist, her description of how she understood what she was doing as an artist, to reflect on the challenge of existing in this confused and slightly terrifying world.

The American abstract artist Agnes Martin – whose work has a certain serenity, but is minimalist in a way that I can’t quite get to grips with – gave a lecture in 1976 in which she described art as being “in the midst of reality, responding with joy”.

It is a phrase that has resonated with me strongly, especially over the last few months.  To be “in the midst of reality, responding with joy”.   That is, to live in the world: not to seek escape, not to deny the challenges of human experience and the realities of modern society.  To live truly within it as all of us must.
But to respond with joy.  Not just happiness (we can’t make ourselves happy) but a much deeper idea – the commitment to joy as a positive response.

Agnes Martin was very much not a Jew – she was the child of Scottish Presbyterians, deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism.

But this is also an extraordinarily Jewish idea.  We sometimes forget that ours is a tradition in which fasting is not seen as more righteous than feasting.  In which joy and song are core to our religious life.

To respond with joy is a mitzvah, an obligation.
We read in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, that the curses will befall Israel: “tachat asher lo avad’ta et Adonai elohecha b’simcha u’v’tuv levav” – “because you did not serve the Eternal, your God, with joy and goodness of heart”.  Incidentally, the Talmud asks “eizo hi avodah she’ b’simcha u’v’tuv levav” – “What type of service is with joy and goodness of heart?”  “Hevei omer zeh shirah” – “You have to say this is song”.

One of the delights for me, as a rabbi, of serving this community, is that I stand in front of these words when I act as shaliach tzibbur:
The words above both of our arks – from Psalm 100: “ivdu et Adonai b’simcha” – “Serve the Eternal with joy”.
We may take them for granted, but they are a powerful statement of this Jewish ethos.  Some synagogues have severe, sombre words, like “Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed” “Know before whom you stand”.  But we have a statement of the centrality of joy.  They emphasise the words of the Talmud “One should not stand up to pray while immersed in sorrow… but only b’simcha shel mitzvah – rejoicing in the mitzvah”.   Why? Elsewhere we are told that the Divine Presence will not rest upon someone other than “mitoch dvar simchah shel mitzvah” – Through the joy associated with mitzvah”.

One of the greatest things that people say about our community – that make me most proud is “this is a joyful place”.  Not a “happy place” – we do sadness and mourning quite well, too.  But a “joyful place”.

Tefillah, in particular, is not supposed to be miserable.  If it is, we are doing it wrong.  It should be, at times, reflective, calm, quiet; at times, loud and boisterous; our song can be choral, folky; it takes many forms, but at its heart it must be joyful.  Prayer, as I often say, is an art form.  It is the art of responding to reality with joy.

But not to ignore reality.
Our liturgy is not a series of contentless spirituals.  We are constantly challenged to place ourselves in relation with the big priorities of the world – to pray about peace, law, healing.  To reflect together on loss.  And the response is to sing rather than despair.

In a community, our joy is also our response to the realities that each of us is experiencing.  The mitzvah of joy is not a naïve statement that we should all be happy all the time: that if we just try hard enough we can deal with any adversity, or that being upset is a failure – of course it is not.  As Jews we live in the midst of reality – not denying the experience of conflict, illness, loss, pain; not pretending that all is perfect.  Nor celebrating pain – taking perverse attitudes about suffering as purifying, or beneficial.
The mitzvah of joy does not mean we always have to be happy – for that would be unachievable.  In every service here we recognise that in the room are those who come to Shabbat not with joyful hearts.

But, as community we seek to create around each other a supporting structure b’simcha u’v’tuv levav.  The simchah shel mitzvah on which the divine presence rests accompanies the mitzvah of visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, accompanying the dead.  That is to respond to reality with joy.

Why am I speaking about joy this Shabbat?

In a couple of days, we begin the month of Adar.  And on that day, according to the rabbis “Mi-shenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah,” “When Adar enters, we increase joy”.

It is a funny idea, that we should be even more joyful for the next few weeks.  And it is very important that we not misunderstand what we are being asked to do.
The joy of Adar is not merely the joy of carefree abandon – Adar as the month in which we will drink and lose ourselves at Purim.
Nor, though it is often seen as such, is it joy as superstition – according to the Talmud, Adar is an especially lucky month – in fact, much to my horror the Chabad website says that:
“if a Jew is faced with a challenging event (such as a medical procedure) he should endeavour to schedule it during Adar”.
Sociologically some link this idea to the new light of Spring – joy as a physiological response, maybe.

But we best understand Adar if we think of Agnes Martin’s quote “in the midst of reality, responding with joy”.
Adar is a month in which that is most clearly expressed.

The first major event of Adar is not Purim, but the seventh of Adar – the anniversary of the death of Moses.  7 Adar in many ways epitomises the experience of reality – the full cycle of human life.  According to tradition Moses died on the same day that he was born.
7 Adar speaks, too, to the reality of loss, in inevitability of death.  There are large numbers of midrashim about the death of Moses (some of which we will study together tomorrow morning in our Monthly Midrash in the Morning session).  Many of them emphasise the same theme: death is an inevitable part of life, even Moses has to die.

7 Adar is also the day on which this reality of death is responded to with joy.  On it a chevra kaddisha comes together for an annual feast with their community (which is why we will have a special seminar on death next Sunday afternoon, here).  Those in a community who most directly experience, live in the midst of reality, once a year, come together and rejoice in their work.

The joyfulness of Adar is thus not a shallow one, but a deep joy born of religious fulfilment and commitment, getting our hands dirty in the real work of living together.  As well as joining our voices together in the joy of communal expression.

Purim, too, is really about this balance: reality and joy.  Which is why the mitzvot of Purim are both festive joy, the seudat Purim, and relational mitzvot: mishloach manot,  normally the sending of food to one another, sustaining one another; and matanot la-evyonim, gifts to the poor.
The introduction of a fundraising element to our Purim carnival this year is a reflection of this important aspect of our joy.

As we enter Adar, it is a good time for us to focus on the role of joy in our religious lives.  The obligation, in the words of a twentieth century Canadian American, recluse, Presbyterian Buddhist Abstract Artist to be “in the midst of reality, responding with joy”.
This is our art form, too, our task as Jews: b’simcha u’v’tuv levav.

It is not always easy, of course, so I will end with the prayer of Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, for whom joy was fundamental, but often just out of reach:
“God, I stand beaten and battered by the countless manifestations of my own inadequacies. Yet we must live with joy, overcome despair, seek, pursue and find every inkling of goodness, every positive point within ourselves, and so discover true joy. Aid me in this quest, O God. Help me find satisfaction and a deep, abiding joy in all that I have, in all that I do, in all that I am”.