Sermon: Weeping and laughing, dancing and crying.

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 7 October 2017

Last night, nearly 400 of us sang joyfully together, even as, for many, their hearts wept.
Together this morning we have celebrated Shabbat and Sukkot, we have marked almost the full range of life cycle celebration – a new baby, a new adult in our community, a new marriage.  And alongside this, we have been in mourning.  We have experienced a full range of emotions, all crammed into our tefillah.

There is a voice in our tradition – in particular a halachic, a legal, voice, that is uncomfortable with this.  Halachah, Jewish law, is much more comfortable with straight lines, with clarity.

One joyful event at a time, it demands – “ein m’arvin simcha b simcha” – “one should not mix a joy with a joy”.  Hence there is a classical prohibition on a wedding on the intermediate days of a festival.

And, equally, joy and sorrow are not, halachically, to be mixed.  No celebration on days of mourning – and no mourning on days of celebration.  The festivals, according to law, supersede the mourning process – if shiva begins before chag, the chag annuls it; when shiva begins during chag it delays it.  Mourning is to be put on hold.

When we mourn as a community for one of those who built Alyth in their generation, Jerome Karet over the next few days, we will do so against a backdrop of halachic tension and ambiguity – that, or wait until we are allowed to mourn.

This is one of those occasions where the rabbinic legal imagination sits in tension with the reality of human experience.  A case where halachah struggles with the complexity of human life.  Halachah, concerned with creating lines, binary, black and white, faces our realities – messy and complicated.

It is an inevitable feature of human life that we experience multiple events, multiple cycles all at the same time – and that we cannot always comfortably privilege one over another.  We cannot preserve just one joy, cannot postpone our sorrow because the calendar tells us to.

This is especially true in a community, where every week we experience together multiple joys and often sadnesses sat next to one another in prayer.  It is z’man simchateinu, yet some among us are here to mourn, some to be joyful, and most feel both.

The non-legal Jewish voice understands this well, and especially the Hasidic tradition, perhaps more open to the emotional reality of human existence.  Opposing feelings can exist at the very same time. As the Zohar expresses it, in the words of Rabbi Eleazar, studying in the shadow of the destruction of the temple: “Weeping is lodged in one side of my heart, and joy is lodged in the other.”  So often, that is our reality – a whole heart is one that contains within it both joy and sadness.

Of course, our ritual life reflects this idea, too.  At the end of Roberta and Sam’s wedding tomorrow, they will both stamp on a glass, signifying, among other things, their awareness of the sadness that accompanies us even at our happiest moments, the possibility and reality of brokenness, that unadulterated joy is neither desirable, or, in truth, ever fully possible.

At Sukkot we read from the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to wail and a time to dance’.  On this Shabbat, as is often the case, this is not quite true.  Rather, weeping and laughing exist in the same moment, side by side in community, and within each of us.  And as we cry we dance, and we dance even through tears.  We do so as community, supporting and holding one another – “Weeping lodged in one side of our hearts, joy lodged in the other.”

This is not only true, not only inevitable, but is what it is to be human – the wholeness of human experience.  Or, to quote another Chasidic teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk: “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart”.

So, yes, this morning has been messy and complicated.  So, too, is life.