Joy: It Is A Strategy!
Today I want to talk to you about Joy as a spiritual practice. Let’s start with a story.
A man walks into a shoe store, and a friendly sales clerk approaches him.
“What can I do for you today, sir?”
“I’d like a pair of black shoes like the ones in the window.” “Certainly, sir. Let’s see, you must be a size 41. Am I right?”
“No. I’d like a 39, please.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve been doing this for twenty years and I’m fairly certain you must be a 41. Perhaps a 40, but certainly not a 39.”
“A 39, please.”
“Forgive me, but would you allow me to measure your foot?”
“Measure whatever you want, but I want a pair of shoes in size 39.”
So the salesman pulls out one of those strange contraptions shoe salesmen use to measure feet and measures, and then proclaims with satisfaction, “You see? Just as I said. A size 41!”
“Tell me, who is going to pay for the shoes, you or me?” “You are.”
“Correct. So, are you going to bring me a 39?”
And the sales clerk, in a mixture of shock and resignation, goes off to find a size 39 pair of shoes. On his way he realizes what it must be: the shoes aren’t for the man; he must be buying them for someone else as a gift.
“Sir, here you are, size 39, black.”
“Will you hand me a shoehorn?”
“Are you going to put them on?”
“Of course I am.”
“They’re for you?”
“Obviously! Will you bring me a shoehorn?”
The shoehorn is in fact absolutely essential in order for the man to be able to fit his foot into that shoe. After several attempts and ridiculous contortions, the customer manages to stuff his entire foot into the shoe. Grunting and groaning he walks a few steps on the carpet, with increasing pain.
“Right. I’ll take them.”
“Shall I box them up for you?”
“No, thank you. I’ll wear them out.”
The customer leaves the shop and walks as best he can the three blocks back to his place of work. He’s a teller at the bank. At four o’clock in the afternoon, after having spent more than six hours standing in those shoes, his face is contorted, his eyes are red, and tears stream down his face. His co-worker has been watching him all afternoon and he’s worried about him. “What’s the matter? Do you feel sick?”
“No. It’s these shoes.”
“What happened to them? Did they get wet?”
“No. They’re two sizes too small for my feet.”
“Whose are they?”
“I don’t get it. You’re saying your feet hurt?”
“They don’t just hurt; they’re killing me!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Let me explain,” he says, swallowing. “There’s not a lot of gratification in my life. In fact, recently, I’ve had very few happy moments.”
“These shoes are killing me. I’m suffering terribly, it’s true. But in a few hours, when I get home and take them off, can you imagine the pleasure I’m going to feel? Such pleasure, my friend, such immense pleasure!”
Bucay, Jorge. Let Me Tell You a Story: A New Approach to Healing through the Art of Storytelling
For some people,like the man in our story, Joy means to be released from pain. How is that related to Judaism? We, Jews, are practically experts in the practice of Kvetching! But it turns out that in our tradition Joy actually has a central role. In fact, we affirm: Mitzvah Gedola Lichiot B’simcha – it is a great commandment to live with Joy!
Says Arthur Green:
Imagine a religion that begins with “God wants you to be happy!” Beware of anything that threatens to take away your joy. In the end it will probably take you away from God as well. Simhah, or joy, is the attitude toward life that Judaism seeks to instill. Despite the fact that Jewish history has more than its share of bleak and depressing chapters, the tradition sees itself as a joyous one. “Serve Y-H-W-H with joy; come before his presence with singing.” (From -Green, Arthur. Judaism’s Ten Best Ideas)
A few months ago a congregant approached me and asked: Nico, how do you do to be always so Joyful?
I must admit that the question surprised me…I didn’t know that I am always so Joyful although I actively try to be Joyful because it is indeed a very important Mitzvah.
As Rabbi Nachman says: It’s a great Mitzvah to be happy all the time, and to gird oneself to push away sadness and dark bitterness with all one’s strength.
So I thought for a second and answered: Well It is a strategy….
A few months afterward during our trip to Israel somebody asked me again: How do you do to be always so Joyful? Guess what!? It surprised me again! but this time the answer, which was exactly the same, came with more confidence: It is a strategy.
In our first story the man needed to chastise himself using the small shoes in order to achieve joy. His joy, rather than coming from an internal search, was a “side effect” of the absence of pain.
Being Joyful is a spiritual practice and a strategy to live a better life, a life of deeper connection. Let me share with you another story:
Two brothers, the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk and Rabbi Zushe of Anipoli, often wandered about together, posing as beggars. They would mingle with the masses, listening, teaching, speaking, helping and guiding whomever and whenever they could.
Once, while they were traveling with a group of vagabonds, members of the group were accused of being thieves, resulting in the entire bunch being thrown into jail. Confident of their innocence and eventual release, the two brothers sat quietly. As the afternoon progressed, Rabbi Elimelech stood up to prepare himself to pray the afternoon service.
“What are you doing?” his brother asked.
“I’m getting ready for minchah,” replied Rabbi Elimelech.
“The same G‑d who commanded you to pray commanded you not to pray in a room unfit for prayer!”“Dear brother,” advised Rabbi Zushe, “it is forbidden to pray in this cell, because there is a pail that serves as a toilet nearby, making the room unfit for prayer.”
Dejected, the holy Rabbi Elimelech sat down.
Soon after, Rabbi Elimelech began to cry.
“Why are you crying?” said Rabbi Zushe. “Is it because you are unable to pray?”
Reb Elimelech answered affirmatively.
“But why weep?” continued Rabbi Zushe. “Don’t you know that the same G‑d who commanded you to pray, also commanded you not to pray when the room is unfit for prayer? By not praying in this room, you have achieved a connection with G‑d. True, it is not the connection that you had sought. Yet, if you truly want the divine connection, you would be happy that G‑d has afforded you the opportunity to obey His law at this time, no matter what it is.”
“You are right, my brother!” exclaimed Rabbi Elimelech, suddenly smiling.
The feelings of dejection banished from his heart and mind, Rabbi Elimelech took his brother’s arm and began to dance from joy as a result of performing the mitzvah of not praying in an inappropriate place.
The guards heard the commotion and came running. Witnessing the two brothers dancing, the guards asked the other prisoners what had happened. “We have no idea!” they answered, mystified. “Those two Jews were discussing the pail in the corner, when all of a sudden they came to some happy conclusion and began to dance.”
“Is that right?” sneered the guards. “They’re happy because of the pail, are they? We’ll show them!” They promptly removed the pail from the cell.
The holy brothers then prayed Minchah undisturbed . . .
In using Joy as a strategy to life, We do not disregard what is painful to us. And of course we don’t try to ignore what is bothering us. However we try to face whatever life is placing in front of us with Joy . Are your circumstances going to define you? Or you are going to be defined by the way you deal with circumstances?
Lichiot B’Simcha – to live by Joy, is to experience life as an opportunity and not as a decree.
Taking Joy seriously means to embrace our routines with a deep sense of purpose.
And this reminds of yet another story:
(From A. Green JTBI)It is a pious custom to bake special Matzahs right on the eve of Passover, in order to be engaged fully in the celebration of our freedom. To make matzo properly, you need to use water that has been left standing overnight, to ensure its absolute stillness. Once…where water was still brought from the river, an elderly rabbi was seen carrying two heavy buckets full of water for this purpose tied to a yoke around her neck. A neighbor riding by in a horse-drawn cart saw her and said, “Come here, rabbi! Put your buckets on my wagon, and I’ll give you a ride.” The rabbi looked up smiling, and said, “I have the joy of doing this mitzvah only once a year, and you want me to give it away to a horse?”
In this last story, the Rabbi chose to make the burden itself a source of joy.
When the ancient Israelites wandered through the wilderness for forty years, a certain group of Levites were given the privilege of carrying the Holy Ark. “How heavy it must have been,” somebody commented, “with those massive stone tablets inside it!”
“No,” a Levite answered. “The Ark carried those of us who bore it.”
The same is true of any Mitzvah carried out with joy.
It elevates and carries us as we do it.
The Joy of the Mitzvah… Embracing life with a sense of purpose and with motivation is the first key in order to convert Joy into a spiritual practice.
I’d like to conclude this sermon sharing some ideas that can help us in this endeavor of practicing Joy.
Bring silence into your life
Try to turn down the volume on all the noise in your life, rediscover the amazing fact that silence and stillness exist. Allow yourself to be still.
If there is anything you are procrastinating, anything you can easily fix, anyone who is dragging you down, pay attention. Don’t wait or settle for ‘good enough’. Make the time, figure out a solution, and clean it up. You are creating the space for joy.
If a grudge is interfering with your joy of life, then it requires your attention. Don’t live in self-righteousness or regret. If you feel wronged by someone or you hurt another, deal with it. Don’t let it fester. Make a lifestyle of living free from hurts and grudges. You will feel strong, clear, and empowered.
We live in a state of lack, thinking that life can begin if only we get what we think we need. Instead of living in lack, contemplate generosity. Give to others what you want or need. You can offer attention, interest, and caring. Your sense of lack will be transformed into fullness. The more you distribute the more you have to give!
We all suffer, suffering is part of our being humans. However those who are completely focused on their own suffering find themselves farther and farther from any possible consolation… The question is if we are capable of lifting our eyes.
Joy doesn’t come out of self-punishment, joy comes from the understanding that this life is precious and every day on Earth is an opportunity! It comes from that moment in which you recognize your impediments but realize your possibilities, like the two Rabbis that ended up dancing in jail.
There are many things in our lives over which we have very little control. We don’t know what circumstances will be presented to us in the year to come. However, we know that we can choose whether we are going to walk through with our heads down or we are rather going to lift our eyes and walk with Joy.
Shana Tovah U’metuka