David Breakstone
Reflections on Israel and the Jewish world
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Life is fleeting. Rejoice!

This year, we may need a little prompting to remember that our abiding sense of joy will sustain us through the temporary periods of tragedy
Ushpizin on our Sukkah wall (Aliza Lipkin)
A festive sukkah. (Aliza Lipkin)

The oxymoron of Sukkot, laid bare by COVID-19

Of his own people, W.B. Yeats famously wrote “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” And if he had been writing of the Jews?

As if we needed a reminder this year that life is fleeting, the material ephemeral, and everything we think we have and hold potentially transitory. Still, this year I was as resolute about erecting a sukkah as I have always been — albeit a mini-one, just for two. Not only because the mitzvah of dwelling in one of these fragile shanties is as binding in the midst of an epidemic as it is in ordinary times, but because building one made it easier to fulfill another of the commandments that comes along with the holiday: And you shall rejoice in your festival.

That, I would submit, is something for which we could use a bit of prompting these days. Normally I’d ask, Why the need for such a directive in the first place? What could be more natural than enjoying oneself on Sukkot? But then came COVID-19, and along with it, the threat of an only-in-Israel NIS 500 fine for anyone caught surreptitiously slipping into a booth not one’s own.

Not that I’m particularly suffering. Innumerable aggravations, limitations and plans turned topsy-turvy to be sure, but all-in-all, not too bad. I haven’t lost my livelihood, nor have my kids. No one throughout the extended family is sick. And I live in a house with a loving spouse and a lovely garden so that even in lockdown we can stop and smell the roses (at least metaphorically speaking, as roses there are none.) Still, with a little time on my hands during these intermediate days of Sukkot, and well aware that I’m living on this island of privilege surrounded by a turbulent sea of untold hardships threatening the breakwater protecting its shoreline, I resolved to give some thought to what rejoicing – or, more specifically, joy – is all about.

The traditional Jewish understanding, of course, is that joy is bound up with binding oneself to God. “Always remember,” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “joy is not incidental to spiritual quest. It is vital.” And to those embarking on that journey, he instructed, “Get into the habit of singing a tune. It will give you new life and fill you with joy. Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.” And that was before TikTok!

But not wanting to restrict my quest for the true meaning of joy to the parameters of Jewish thought, nor trusting myself to come up with the answer on my own, I turned to that ever reliable source of inspiration, brainyquotes.com. I share here just a few of the first thousand citations I skimmed, but leave it to you to Google the ascribed author.

My personal favorite is from William Butler Yeats, “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.” Casting sarcasm aside, Russell M. Nelson strikes a more philosophical chord: “My dear brothers and sisters, the joy we feel has little to do with the circumstances of our lives and everything to do with the focus of our lives.” And on what had we best place that focus? “They say a person needs just three things to be truly happy in this world,” declares Tom Bodett. “Someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for.” The first two, of course, are singularly individual, but as a collective, we’ve got 2000 years of that hope thing under our belts. Of course, there are those who might question where it’s gotten us to.

Then there is the purely cerebral inquiry into joy, similar to what is asked about the proverbial tree making a sound if it should fall to the ground with no one around to hear it. Fortunately for us, John Green has come up with his own unequivocal riposte. “’Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.” No argument there. I mean, who isn’t grateful for chocolate. And, says Brother David Steindl-Rast, that is the key. “The root of joy is gratefulness. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m neither immune to nor untouched by the uncertainty, anxiety, economic hardship, fear and malaise encumbering our daily lives. But in spite of it all, I refuse to abandon the mitzvah of rejoicing. When feeling downhearted, I pick myself up and wander out of the sukkah into that garden of mine. Right, the one with no roses. But it does have a lovely lemon tree, with this winter’s promising yield already offering assurances of next summer’s lazy evening lemonade. And across the yard, there’s a thriving pomegranate tree, flourishing with fruit bursting with seeds biblically symbolic of love and fertility, with just a twist of kabbalistic mysticism tossed in. Mix all that together with the tidings received over Rosh Hashanah that we are to expect two new grandchildren in the spring, and you’ve got one hell of a recipe for joy.

Yes, I know it’s easy for me to say with all these ingredients readily at hand, and I don’t forget for a moment that there are those so deep in despair that they might understandably resent this ode to optimism. But despite Mark Twain’s warning that “comparison is the death of joy,” I prefer to think that that really is a matter of choice, that the opposite might be equally true, even more so. With all due respect to the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, in this instance I favor the wisdom of our sages. “Who is the wealthy one?” they asked. “She who takes joy in what she has.”

To those presently feeling too beleaguered by COVID-19 to do that, I’d gladly invite you to partake of my garden if it weren’t for the closure. Under the circumstances, I can only urge you to create one of your own. As did Henri Matisse. “I didn’t expect to recover from my second operation,” he wrote towards the end, “but since I did, I consider that I’m living on borrowed time. Every day that dawns is a gift to me and I take it in that way. I accept it gratefully without looking beyond it. I completely forget my physical suffering and all the unpleasantness of my present condition and I think only of the joy of seeing the sun rise once more.”

The optimism and joy permeating his creations of color and dance weren’t reserved only for the canvas. Plagued by a series of debilitating diseases in his latter years, he not only continued to create works of delight and buoyancy but also lived by that very sense of wonder and enchantment he sought to convey through his paintings.

Which brings me to the traditional greeting at this time of year: moadim l’simcha, “a time for joy.” With the anticipated response being: chagim u’zmanim l’sasson, “a holiday and season for gladness.” With this salutation in mind, and the commandment to rejoice at heart, my suggestion is that we turn Yeats on his head, so that it may be said of each of us, “Being Jewish, he had an abiding sense of joy, which sustained him through temporary periods of tragedy.”

May we all be inscribed for a year of health, prosperity – and joy.

About the Author
Dr. David Breakstone is the deputy chairman of the executive of The Jewish Agency for Israel and the conceptual architect and founding director of the World Zionist Organization's Herzl Museum and Educational Center in Jerusalem. The opinions expressed herein are entirely his own.
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