Bradley Shavit Artson
Bradley Shavit Artson
Rabbi. Philosopher. Author. Teacher.

Finding joy in a culture of kvetch

This is a day that God has made; we shall delight and rejoice on it (Psalm 118:24).

Can we just take the moment to let ourselves feel the joy of this day? Perhaps the best way to gain access to joy is to take some time to reflect upon what joy actually means.  It turns out that Simcha (joy) is deeply imbedded in Jewish spirituality and faith, although many Jews don’t seem to know that.  We are actually commanded You shall rejoice in God’s presence (Deuteronomy 12:18).  Apparently, we all need reminding that it is an obligation to rejoice, that being happy is no mere self-indulgence; it is the very portal to intimacy with the Divine.

It is impossible to stand before the Holy One without rejoicing.  If we are not able to tap into what makes life so precious, what makes being with each other so exquisite, how then can we stand up to give thanks?  How can we access gratitude? It turns out that joy is not only necessary for our own thriving, it is also serious business.  It takes work and in Jewish tradition it’s not only a commandment, it’s simultaneously a goal, an obligation, and a harvest. Says the Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman, “It is a great mitzvah to rejoice.”  His insistence on holy joy is all the more striking because that’s not how we often think of religion.  Religion has largely deserved a reputation for being somewhat of a scold.  Religion likes to look dour, serious, even a bit threatening.  Religion seems often to be shaking a finger at someone.  Religion suspects that somewhere, someone is having a good time.

But this misery is not the Jewish way.  The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo writing about Noah says

…the countenance of wisdom is not scowling and severe, contracted by deep thought and depression of spirit, but on the contrary, is cheerful and tranquil, full of joy and gladness (Noah’s Work As A Planter, 167).

Joy Helps Our Spirits Thrive

Can we think together about what it might take to commit ourselves to the regular practice of joy and tranquility, to gladness and cheerfulness, and to see that mood as the mark of true religiosity.  The kind of joy I am speaking about is not giddy, nor is it a distraction.  This joy comes from the very real understanding that our time is fleeting and precious.  That we are not in control of the larger picture and so we have a privileged opportunity to make some small difference along the way, to enjoy the company on the trip.  This right kind of joy allows us to thrive.  It allows us to lift ourselves up from our isolation, to be able to reach out in greater connection to the world around us and to the marvels of creation, to elevate our purpose so that we are not simply slogging through day-to-day, but we are actually walking with purpose toward a goal.  It allows us to renew community so that we are with each other in our joys and in our tragedies.  This joyfulness allows us to touch resilience, so that the buffeting winds of life don’t knock us over, but that we lift ourselves up and we help each other to stand up again.  “You will show me the path of life in Your presence is fullness of joy Psalm 16:11.”

A Culture of Kvetch

If it is true that our natural tendency should be joy, if being in God’s presence should bound over in joy, then why is joy so hard to attain? Why is it so hard to retain?  Why does it need to be commanded? Because we live in a culture that actively discourages joy.  The larger culture tells us that happiness can be purchased in a transaction and if we would only acquire the newest, or the biggest, or the sleekest, well then, perhaps then, we might be happy.  Consumer culture mistakes happiness for distraction, for entertainment, for adulation, for acquisition.  As though happiness has to be earned, as though we deserve to be miserable but we can claw our way out of boredom or purposelessness by spending money!  And so how many of us respond to the possibilities of a new day not with boundless delight, but with predetermined exhaustion?  How many of us have entered into conversations in which the person wins the conversation who kvetches first?

“How are you doing?”

“Oh, don’t even ask!”

That’s a win!

Not that long ago, the Jewish people celebrated Passover, which just about every Jew would recognize as the greatest festival in all of human history:  a festival that celebrates freedom; that brings us all together, that allows us to have a week of festivities in each other’s company; delicious food, great songs; the real deal.

I asked a colleague of mine how was the holiday for him, and he said, “Thank God it’s over!” (Another win!)  That response is typical of all of us, isn’t it?  Because we all of us count and notice our burdens and we don’t attend to the unanticipated miracle of being alive; of what it means to sit at a Seder table and hear some loved one call out ancient rabbinic words. We forget to thrill to hearing the Four Questions on the mouths of a five-year-old, or a three-year-old, or a seventeen-year-old.  How privileged are we! How rare has it been in the annals of human history, how few people have been able to hear the wisdom of their most distant ancestors in the songs of their youngest children?  Yet we Jews witness that miracle week after week as we bless our children and our loved ones with the words that the Patriarchs used to bless theirs.  Ours ought to be a path of joy and honor and yet in a world of such rampant injustice, in a world in which so many are invisible and marginalized, in which isolation is a norm and we drift in a narcissistic purposelessness, how many of us lose hold on the joy, so all we have left is bitterness?

The great French artist, Henri Matisse, said

Ever since there have been people, we have given ourselves over to too little joy, and that alone brothers and sisters, is our original sin.  I should believe only in a God who understood how to dance.

All of us find ourselves at the forefront of the pervasive culture of kvetch.  All of us need to cultivate the strength to fight back, for the sake of those we love, and for our own wellbeing.

Joy as Resistance

I want to offer some tools to fight the culture of kvetch, to become a radiating, pulsating center of joy so that people in your presence remember what they’ve forgotten.  So that we can all remember that everyday above ground is a good day.  Every day in which we are able to look into the eyes of someone we love, or we’re able to touch someone else and lift them up, that is a good day; that is a day of joy.

The first affirmation I want us to remember is that it is a privilege to have connect with each other.  We are invited by virtue of our relationships – whether work or family, or friends –  into the Holy of Holies of people’s hearts. They will permit us to walk with them in their darkest valleys of sorrow and in the searing glare of their terror, and they will ask you to take their hands and carry them through.  It is a great privilege to be able to be there for each other.

Second, I want to invite us to take the joy that is in our hearts because God and world and Scripture and life are in our hearts. Let us share our joy with others because any joy is magnified when we give it to the people around us.  The poet Anne Sexton writes “The joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard, dies young.”  Don’t let the joy die young.  Take the joy we feel and give it away freely.  It turns out that joy is like a watering pump, the more that we pump out, the more we’ll have to access to.  Share joy wildly and know that there will be plenty more.

Along with giving away the joy, I invite us to do the work of shifting our focus.  There is no better guarantee for misery than to continue to focus on ourselves.  Those miserable people who spend their days bemoaning their own sufferings, obsessing about their own tragedies, those unhappy people find themselves drifting farther and farther away from consolation.  They are trapped in a cage of their own making. It’s not that their suffering isn’t real; it is. We all suffer. But not everyone sinks into an addictive spiral of self-obsession, some resilient people manage to lift up their eyes above the constricted boundaries of their own challenges, and they are thereby able to gain strength even in those challenging moments, to be able to lift up their fellow human beings.

I want to invite us to shift the focus away from the delusion of our own ego, our own centrality. The surest way to reprioritize more appropriately is to place God at the center, in the very place our egos try to snare us. With wisdom, the Psalmist instructs, “Serve God through joy (Psalm 100:2)!”  Transcend our own ego and we will be better able to reach out and identify with those hurting souls around us.  Ultimately, all of us face a stark and simple choice.  We can go through life counting all the wrongs that have been done to us, and it will leave us dry and shriveled and bitter and alone. Or, knowing that we are going to face those sufferings regardless, we can resolve to lift ourselves up to be part of a true Mekor Hayyim, the Fountain of Life that renews and restores by broadening us beyond the confines of our own narrow souls.  By granting us to understand that it is in the healing balm of justice; in building communities of compassion and care, in being able to surround ourselves by the love of those who share life with us, we are given the inestimable privilege of doing God’s work, of being someone else’s malach (angel) of uplift and of joy.

My blessing to each of us is that we nurture the joy, that we fend off the kvetch, and that we share the joy with all those to whom we speak.

About the Author
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Roslyn & Abner Goldstine Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University, and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College of University of Potsdam, training Conservative/Masorti Rabbis for Europe.
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