–1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)
Therefore, first of all, man ought to be happy and joyous at all times, and truly live by his faith in the Lord who animates him and is benignant with him every moment. But he who is grieved and laments makes himself appear as if he has it somewhat bad, and is suffering, and lacking some goodness; he is like a heretic, Heaven forbid.
–Igeret HaKodesh 11 (Kehot)
Apparently, I struggle with joy. I suppose it’s part of my nature or my personality to do so, just like I struggle with everything else, including God. I don’t have an easy relationship with joy. It’s like my relationship with all those religious and spiritual people who seem to be so happy and carefree all the time. I just don’t see how they can be perpetually “warm and fuzzy” (kittens, puppies, John Lennon quotes) and still manage to relate to those of us who seem to need to keep a toe or a foot in the real world.
Was that cynical?
I can only conclude that joy, like love, is a verb; it’s something you do, not something you feel. We can love by performing acts of love, such as feeding the hungry, hugging a crying child who just skinned his knee, helping an elderly, infirm person across the street, or visiting a sick person in who is in the hospital. But how to you do joy?
This morning (as I write this), I realized that last night I actually did joy. I just didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time. That means I actually do joy more often, much more often than I thought I did.
Here’s what happened.
On Tuesday evenings, my son and daughter-in-law take a class and they ask my wife and I to watch our grandson Landon while they’re out. Last Tuesday night, my wife had to work late, so when I dropped off my son at his place after work (we commute to and from work together), I took Landon home with me (oh, he’s three-and-a-half years old, just so you know). My daughter was home and cutting up lots and lots of organic and recently picked apples on the back patio as part of her latest culinary masterpiece project (cider, I believe). The sukkah was still up, which should help set the scene for you.
Oh, one more thing. Rabbit and Alley. We have two hand puppets that we acquired (I don’t remember the details) when our own children were small. One is a rabbit and the other is an alligator (hence, “Rabbit and Alley”). Landon adores Rabbit and Alley (or “Raddit and Alley” as he calls them). They are his very close friends, almost as close as “Baby” which is his favorite stuffed toy (a giraffe).
When we got to my place, he saw that his aunt was out back and he wanted us all (Grandpa, Rabbit, and Alley) to play outside so we could be with her. My grandson is a picky eater, so he didn’t want to have dinner with me. He did sit beside me and we chatted while I ate. After my hunger was sufficiently assuaged, we proceeded out back.
Landon consumed a lot of (Auntie provided) fresh apples between periods of playing in the sandbox. Rabbit and Alley (and I) watched him as he transferred sand almost endlessly from one container to another. He put sand in a small bucket and pretended that he was planting (alternately) “pretty flowers” and tomatoes. Rabbit received the honor of watering the “plants” (pouring more sand in the bucket). He gave Rabbit and Alley “flowers” to put in their “pockets” and fed them imaginary tomatoes, since Rabbit and Alley like their vegetables (Landon, not so much).
When the sun went down sufficiently, I turned the lights on that are mounted on the sukkah, and we went inside. Landon ate more apples and asked me to read the Hebrew that is on two walls of the sukkah. I can’t read Hebrew, but was able to point out the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and David. Landon was a little confused when I mentioned that David played a harp because his Dad (also David) plays the drums. I had to explain that one is a King and the other is his Daddy.
We ran around the outside of the sukkah “hiding” from each other. He hid behind bushes. He picked up a “pretty rock” and carried it around for a while. I’m pretty sure I was wearing Rabbit and Alley on my hands the whole time. I tend to forget they’re actually on my hands when I’m playing with him, unless I need to take them off to turn the pages of a book I’m reading to him, or some similar activity.
In fact, when the sun went down, we did go in and I read him two books, one about an adventurous young penguin, and the other about a duck who likes to make soup.
His parents came to pick him up and, as is true with most children who are in the middle of having a good time, he didn’t want to go. So, to encourage Landon to go to the car, Rabbit, Alley, and Grandpa went out to the front to see him off. After he and his parents left, I went back inside and only then remembered to take off Rabbit and Alley and place him in their seat of honor near the fireplace.
I woke up this morning and realized that playing with my grandson was “doing joy”. It’s not that I had been emotionally ecstatic and overwhelmed with mind-bending happiness, but I recalled, looking back on the evening, that I had been quietly, pleasantly happy. I’ve mentioned before that one of the acts of love we are able to perform is to hug a crying child who has just skinned his knee. If that’s love, then joy must be playing “Rabbit and Alley” with a small child who on some level (even though he sees me put the puppets on and take them off) believes that Grandpa, Rabbit, and Alley are his best friends.
Love and joy are playing with your grandson. The next time you can’t find the Spirit of God within you and you feel lost, abandoned, and arid inside, play with someone you love. There, you’ll find joy and every other gift that God provides.
When man has moved away from the Divine, the only rectification is for man to move back toward God. Therefore the Zohar concludes that repentance is the key to heal the rift, which caused the destruction of the second Temple. This would also explain the Midrash cited at the outset — Moses knew that the absence of the Temple necessitated man’s movement toward God; therefore, Moses instituted thrice daily prayer, in order to remind man constantly, in all his experiences, that he must not forget God, rather he should take every opportunity to stand in front of God.
Furthermore, prayer is described as “service of the heart.” Evidently the heart, the emotions are crucial for this return.
But the Zohar insists that repentance coming from the heart full of love is needed to return the Jews to the level which should have been reached via the first fruits offerings. When this happens, joy will become a reality — everlasting and complete joy.
-Rabbi Ari Kahn
“Joy: Commentary on Torah Portion Ki Tavo”
I’m beginning to think that Moses should have instituted thrice daily play times with small children to remind us constantly that we must not forget God.
Turn away from feeling lost and lonely by cherishing whoever God gives you to play with, and your heart will return to Him. Go do love and joy.