This week's reading is courtesy of my dear friend, David Gottlieb (co-author of Letters To A Buddhist Jew).
For years, I struggled with the impression that Judaism lacked joy (simcha), in its worship and its outlook on life. When, during a lengthy correspondence with Rabbi Akiva Tatz, I challenged him to show me the place joy had in the study and practice of Judaism, his response was a revelation: while there is no commandment to be happy, there is only one Jewish route, and a failsafe one, to joy: self awareness. Through self awareness, Rabbi Tatz told me, we understand two critical aspects of our lives: the abundance with which G-d consistently blesses us, and the goal toward which we were designed to move. As we come to understand these facets of existence, we can cultivate joy by being self-aware, grateful and devoted to serving G-d – it is through service that we kindle and express gratitude, and initiate the self-sustaining cycle of which joy is the result. And it is the movement toward the goal – the sometimes painful but never pointless progress toward more complete service of the Divine – that inspires in us the joy that makes the cultivation of all the other middot more possible and more meaningful.
Perhaps no one in history knew this better than King David, whose psalms overflow with the joy of service of the Divine. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; Serve G-d with joy” (Ps. 100:1-2) was the imperative that suffused his melodious prayer and his actions with meaning. Even in his more plaintive psalms, joy is not far under the surface; as Rabbi Tatz pointed out to me, “one who is laboring to build and is aware that the result is taking shape as it should cannot be depressed not matter how hard the work.”
The word ‘work’ is key here: if work is a prerequisite of joy, then doing the right work in the service of God is essential. The work may be extremely difficult, but if it is consistent with your mission and your purpose, you will move toward the experience that the psychologist Mihaly Cziksentmihaly called “flow”: the optimal matching of skill with challenge.
Flow is a concept that is central to joy, because it is the essence of the movement of the Divine blessing of life into your veins, your bones, your consciousness. Judaism recognizes the power of Flow. For example, when you say “Mazal tov!” to someone who is reaching toward or realizing a joyous moment, you are invoking not good luck but good flow – the flow of Divine energy that opens to them and for them.
Sometimes the clues to our finding this flow are so ubiquitous that we forget to employ them for their intended purpose. Let’s take a close look at one example: when you recite a blessing, beginning with the words, Baruch ata Adonai, you are praising and thanking God for the flow of the blessing of life and the ability to recognize and name it. Rabbi Marcia Prager unfolds this idea: the meaning of the letter bet is bayit, or dwelling; as the second letter of the Hebrew aleph bet, it is the primordial dwelling and container for the flow of Divine energy. The resh, whose meaning is “head,” is the dwelling place of our consciousness and our highest (in terms of verticality) receptor for the downward flow of the Divine energy. The khaf means the cupping of hands, the receptacle for overflow and the containment, within our sight and possession, of blessing. All these letters hint at the receipt and sheltering of Divine flow. The gematria of Baruch is 222, 200 + 20 + 2: each letter aligns in the same numerical column and showers us in a beacon of flow.
In Judaism, then, joy begins with simple awareness of the fact that Divine energy is flowing to you and through you at each moment. It expands into the understanding of your purpose: the unique way that you, in each moment, are meant to spread that flow to others.
Practice: Meditate on and say the words Baruch ata Adonai, very slowly. Use one breath for each word; use all of your breath on each word; as you inhale, know that you are taking in, and preparing to spread, the joy of renewed understanding and purpose. Then, go attend to the tasks that await you. Have they taken on a new dimension?