Reuven Spero

Joy in bad times

Joy in bad times

Last week, just before Shabbat, a former student called me from the States. We talked for a while and then he asked me, what does one do about simha in times like these?

This is such a hard question.

Who has not thought of this when, sometime over the past two months, you’ve had reason to celebrate, not just to let loose and relax but to rejoice over some personal or family or communal celebration? An engagement, a wedding, a birth; success at work, getting a raise, finding a job. Life as it goes on is not characterized only by stupid drivers, IRS audits, parents suffering a fall but of many many joys, large and small, strung together to make mornings a wonder to wake up to.

I wake up in the morning with that freshness of spirit, only to remember that we are still living a nightmare. I think of the number of fallen soldiers, of the flower of our youth being cut down like wheat in the fields of the south, of young women and men in captivity, of children orphaned, and the carrying out of atrocities on our people that make one sick. I think of the presidents of elite universities who cannot, or are not willing, to take steps to protect their Jewish students, soulless ghouls who tear down posters of captives being held in the terror tunnels, shameless expressions of antisemitism only 80 years after the death machines of fascism decimated the Jewish population of Europe – and my morning freshness dies on the stem.

We create a new normal for ourselves, and … I wrote at first “that’s a sin,” then I went back and erased it for being so stark, but yes, I think it is a sin, if at the same time we do not remind ourselves of the nightmare. If we are not doing something, some action, some activism, some response because, my friends, these are times of which history is made and the eyes of your children and your parents and your people and – who knows – Hashem are on you.

And doing something, responding to what we are living through in a clear and unequivocal way, gives you the right to experience simha.

Jews are no strangers to blending tragedy and simha. At weddings we remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, we juxtapose Yom Ha-zikaron to the wild celebrations of Yom Ha-atzmaut, the list is long. Internalizing the nightmare allows us to be awake to the joy.

About 2700 years ago, after the destruction of the First Temple and the return of some of the refugees to Judea, Ezra and Nehemiah gather the people in the square in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem. It was the first day of Tishri, the first day of Rosh Hashana. Ezra chose this moment to renew the brit between Hashem and Israel, and he created a symbolic Mt. Sinai experience by reading the Torah out loud to the entire assembled people. The scene is worth reading:

[Ezra] read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching….

Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; as he opened it, all the people stood up.

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” with hands upraised. Then they bowed their heads and prostrated themselves before the LORD with their faces to the ground.

 ….[and] the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places.

They read from the scroll of the Teaching of God, translating it and giving the sense; so they understood the reading. Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching.

 He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the LORD is the source of your strength.”

“For your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.”

In the following days, those who wept went out into the fields and brought in palm fronds and branches from olive trees and pine trees and they built sukkot to celebrate the festival.

The whole community that returned from the captivity made booths and dwelt in the booths—the Israelites had not done so from the days of Joshua son of Nun to that day—and there was very great rejoicing.

“For your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.”

This Hanukkah is a very special Hanukkah. Over two thousand years ago when our people were being threatened from a culture that seems so strong, so vibrant, overwhelming – we stood up for our beliefs and our people. We were alone in the world, vastly outnumbered and surrounded by darkness. The Hannukiot that we light are a reminder that even in a place of great darkness, we have a greater light. It is a mitzvah not just to light the Hannukiah, but to stay in its light for a measure of time, to sing, to play, to enjoy the sight of it…

“For your rejoicing in Hashem is the source of your strength.”

About the Author
Reuven is a refugee from Kentucky, where his family lived for 200 years. A teacher at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel, Reuven and family are now rooted in the Land of Israel, living in Shilo.
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