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Joy and Sadness, Together

This summer, on a Sunday afternoon, Liz and I made our way over to the Triplex to catch a viewing of the new Pixar animated movie, Inside/Out. As the movie ended, and we wiped the tears away from our eyes, it was clear that the film had struck a deep and personal chord.

For those who have not yet seen it, do not worry: no need for me to give any spoiler alerts.

Riley, the film’s main character, is a young midwestern girl. When we meet her, she is heading into her teenage years, and her family has just relocated because of her father’s job.

What makes Inside/Out such a thoughtful, fun, and moving film is that the story is told from the perspective of Riley’s feelings, personified. Go inside this young girl’s mind, and there we meet her five main emotions: Joy and Sadness, Anger and Fear, as well as Disgust.

As the story unfolds, a conflict emerges between the characters, Joy and Sadness. Which feelings get to drive Riley’s behaviors and help to define how she reacts to various things? As Joy and Sadness hash it out, a new reality emerges: the two feelings need one another. They can hold things, together. Joy and Sadness co-exist in our minds.

“Those who sow in tears will reap in joy,” the psalmist says. Sadness and joy go hand in hand. It takes sadness to really know joy. Joy to really know sadness. When we stand in a significant moment, often both feelings, among others, are there in the room with us. And somehow, we hold it together. Somehow, we manage to conjure joy and sadness simultaneously. In given moments of our lives, as we react to things going on in our community, and as we try to make sense of our greater world, joy and sadness are there, coupled together, informing our perspectives and driving how we conduct ourselves in our lives. “Tears linger in the evening, but joy comes in the morning.”

On a personal level, I see this coupling of tears and smiles often. They are there in precious lifecycle moments that we mark with rituals. This is most pronounced at a wedding. As a couple makes their way to their chuppah, their parents walk them down the aisle. The parents kiss their children, and then they let go. As the rabbi at many weddings, I am captivated with this moment of release. A mother places her child’s hands in the hands of her child’s beloved. A father gives a hug and kiss to his soon to be new son- or daughter-in-law. For as much as the parents gain in their growing family, they must also release their children.

Often, in the wedding service, we find ourselves laughing and crying at the same time. Those tears represent both joy and sadness; gains as well as losses. When we are at a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah, even a funeral, we mark a significant life transition. We experience the close of one chapter and the start of another. And for these reasons, both joy and sadness have a role in those moments.

Moreover, these feelings are not only reserved for lifecycle events. We can experience these simultaneous feelings at another level, on a communal level.

I know that I have been feeling that all summer around how we, as a Jewish community, have been talking about Israel. For how many months now have we been wringing our hands about Iran and the JCPA? This summer it seems as if we as a broad Jewish community have been obsessed to determine if the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 is essentially good or bad for Israel, good or bad for the United States, good or bad for our world. I for one, am distressed at the sort of discourse that has gone on within our community.

Shortly after the news broke that an agreement had been negotiated, I received multiple emails from all different Israel-advocacy groups telling me why the Iran deal was good for the Jews, or why the Iran deal was bad for the Jews. And why, because of that, I needed to get in touch with my elected officials, and I needed to open my wallet and support their organization. Like a game of capture the flag, AIPAC and J Street, AJC and Americans for Peace Now all took their sides, and were grabbing for the support of the community and for the support of rabbis.

It is not the role of a synagogue nor its rabbis to contribute to further communal balkanization. The Jewish people spent too many years as an exiled nation to separate ourselves from one another. Things do not go well for Korach when he and others cause strife among the Israelites.

Last year, while making a shiva call, no soon after I finished leading the minyan, a man cornered me and said, “You’re the rabbi, right?” When I introduced myself he said, “Where are you at on Israel? Are you Pro-Israel? You’re only welcome here if you’re Pro-Israel.” He was serious. What was I supposed to say to that? I love Israel. But I am also a Jew who loves debate, at the appropriate time. I wanted to have a thoughtful conversation, but not when I was in a house of mourning. That I would be kicked out of that house if my views did not align seemed to articulate a more dangerous trend in today’s Jewish community.

I fear that we are experiencing communal despair and sadness around Israel. What saddens me about the debate that has gone on this summer around Iran is what has been saddening me about how we as American Jews talk about Israel. Our discourse is coming from a place of sinat chinam, baseless hatred, which further divides us. And now that vitriol is seeping into other aspects of Jewish life, namely it pushes us away from being a spiritual and a Torah-centered community. In their national study on religion in America today, sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campbell note that “while political allegiances are sometimes calibrated to be in tune with one’s religion, in our current political environment we also see evidence that people calibrate their religious involvement to align with their politics.” [1] We are more likely to change synagogues than change perspectives.

Where is the joy in all of this? Turn down the noise and you can start to hear some other voices emerge. There are those who are fostering conversation. Sipur Yisrael is a podcast turned radio program like This American Life. It tells the story of a different and diverse Israel, to amplify the voices rarely heard in mainstream media. There is also the Shalom Hartman Institute, founded to enrich the quality of Jewish life in Israel and in the Diaspora. The scholars from the Hartman Institute are taking on the toughest of topics, and they are speaking from a Torah-centered perspective. One Hartman program, which I would love to bring to Hevreh, is called iEngage, a video lecture series focusing on a new narrative of Jewish values and ideas that can encourage a Jewish community to engage with Israel. If this sort of conversation sounds interesting to you, please let me know.

Despair and sadness, communal sorrow and lament; we do not linger in these places. In the Jewish tradition, we always look to joy and to hope. Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav taught that sadness and despair were the experiences of bondage, of slavery. Hope and joy, those were feelings of freedom and redemption.

But that is such a challenge when we continue to lament and are saddened because we know that we have not yet reached the Promised Land. Look to national headlines, and we are reminded of the injustice with which we live. How can we sing of joy when there are those who remain as strangers in a strange land, who suffer at the hand of injustice? On this front, I feel those tears that linger in the evening, and I am praying for morning and joy to come.

This past April, I was in Washington for the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience. The conference was an opportunity to gather with others from the Reform Movement to learn about current key issues that lie at the intersection of social justice and Jewish values. It was at this conference that I heard Bryan Stevenson speak. He is the founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy, a memoir that has been on the bestseller list for many months now. Late next month, I’ll be leading discussing groups on this book. It’s a powerful read, and I would love to explore it with you.

One evening during the conference, I sat down to dinner with colleagues to discuss Black-Jewish relations. We were having dinner with an organizer who brings young Jewish-Americans and young African-Americans together. There was joy in our conversation as we learned from this organizer about the effects of his work. However, as full as my heart was in that moment, I also felt it fracture as I watched the TVs that were found around the restaurant. They were all tuned to CNN, where images from Baltimore were being shown constantly. The protests had just broken out over the arrest and subsequent death of Freddie Gray.

A few months later, I felt that fracture partially heal. Unlike much of our debate around Iran, on this front, there was something we as a community could do to help bring joy back into the sadness of injustice. Earlier this summer, the NAACP announced that it would lead a march over forty days, from Selma to D.C, with the express purpose to raise awareness around key structural inequalities, to name a few, criminal justice reform, voting rights, and economic inequalities. 180 Reform rabbis and many other leaders from our community took part in this 40-day march, carrying a Torah scroll from the Edmund Pettus Bridge to the center of the capital.

A little over half-way through the march, I traveled to the Carolinas to take part. I flew into Charlotte and drove down to Columbia to meet up with other participants. As I left the airport in my rental car, I merged onto the Billy Graham Parkway. Arriving in Columbia, I exited onto the Strom Thurmond Boulevard. And, next to my hotel was a Waffle House. These were landmarks reminding me that it had been some time since I had really been in the South.

The next morning, I joined about twenty other marchers as we made our way through rural South Carolina. The march itself was powerful. The group leaders lined us up two-by-two at our starting point. I held the Torah scroll in my arms for the first mile. There was something about it that brought a lot of joy, brought a lot of comfort, helped me orient myself to what our task was by marching. A local man showed up, eager to participate. He walked with a decent limp and used a cane. The leaders put him in front. He set the pace, and for the two miles that he marched, he held his head high. I saw him later that day at lunch, and we talked about what the march meant to him. He told me he felt dignified.

That dignity transformed into tension as we continued through our day. As we came into a small town, we approached a man standing on his (or someone else’s) front lawn. He was waving an enormous Confederate flag. We tightened up the marching formation, continued to look straight ahead, and did not engage the man in any conversation. But he yelled out to us, “Hello there! I mean no disrespect. It’s just my heritage.”

I asked one of the other participants what she thought the man intended. “The flag has a different meaning for him,” she said, “For him, it’s about Southern pride. It is not about race for him. It doesn’t signal memories of slavery in his mind.”

That experience shook me. Most of the onlookers cheered us on. Cars honked and people pumped their fists in support as they drove by. The predominate feeling was joy, but that man saddened me. Marching in the South complicated my relationship with that region of the country. It was a reality check. I encountered a different South than I had ever seen before. I had been told about it, but now I saw a glimmer of it.

In the end, joy and sadness both had their places over the course of the march. I am proud that I took part in it. I am proud that our movement continues to lead on civil rights. And I am proud that the work does not stop with the march. On that front, Rabbi Gordon will share more with us tomorrow.

Joy and sadness go hand in hand. Like reading about two rabbis fiercely debating in the beit midrash, we wonder which will win out. The joyous rabbi reminds us “This is the day that God has made for gladness. Let us find joy in it.” And the rabbi who carries sorrow counters, “By the rivers of Babylon, I sat and I wept, as we recalled our fallen Zion.” Lament and gladness sit and debate with one another, but the Heavenly voice reminds us, “Eilu v’Eilu, both have a place with the Living God.” We experience joy in our community, and there is much that would cause sorrow and trouble. And somehow, we hold it all together. We Jews always have.

Just before a Jewish wedding concludes, we place a glass down on the ground with the sole purpose for it to be broken. Here we have brought a loving couple under a chuppah, making real their joy and their love now as a united, sacred partnership. This is the meaning of the breaking of the glass: even in times of joy, we mourn. Somehow, we hold sadness and joy together. The glass is broken, the sadness is not allowed to linger, because in the marriage of the two individuals, we are given a picture of wholeness, of shalom.

As we gather for Yom Kippur, through our prayers, fasting, and meditation, may we repair and redeem our relationship with one another, with God. In that sort of soul work, joy and sadness are always there. May we know a time in which all of Israel and all of humanity can experience wholeness and peace. But until that day comes, may we learn to hold sadness and joy together.

[1] American Grace.


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