Joy Like Our Lives Depend on It
Congregation Kol Haneshamah
October 20, 2016
Shabbat Shalom and moadim l’simcha! I hope your Sukkot has brought joy for this season of joy. It’s a joy for me to be with you tonight.
I’d like to ask everyone a question (and offer a special Shabbat blessing for being completely honest): How many of us have felt real joy this week?
Now, how many of us have felt joy like our lives depended on it?
It’s a strange question, right? For most of us, joy is at best a bonus, a rare peak experience, maybe a distant goal of living well – but rarely a necessity and never something we say our lives depend on.
But at this season 2,000 years ago, what today we call the “Season of our Joy” was the “Season of our Anxiety.” This week was when Jerusalem typically ran low on water, after the hot summer but before the winter rains. Without winter rains, ancient Israel risked drought and starvation, so winter rains meant the difference between life and death.
Imagine living back then. Food, the economy, even your very life, all depend on the right amount of rain at the right time. Now your water runs low. Everyone’s water runs low. Imagine the panic. How many of you would respond with joy?
So Israel would pray for rain – probably gripped with anxiety because so much depended on rain. And in an incredible public act of faith, they’d pour some of their last water onto the central altar, as if to prime the pump of the winter rains.
Historically what’s most striking about this ritual is that it wasn’t just the “Season of our Anxiety.” It also became a “Season of our Joy.” Our ancestors turned it into a festival, Simchat Bat HaShoevah – “the joy for drawing water” – named for fulfilling their prayers for life-giving rain. And they made it a carnival with dancing, music, feasting, fire jugglers and more – think an Iron Age “Cirque du Soleil” to celebrate tomorrow’s rain. Talmud said it was joy unlike any other time of year: there was no party like it anywhere else.
We long ago left the Iron Age behind, but our ancestors were onto something. They turned their most anxious moment into a time of joy as if their lives depended on it, because it did. They could have steeped in anxiety, and with good reason, but society wisely evolved a corrective – like a Festival of Lights for the season of darkness. And this corrective wasn’t just a feel-good party, a spiritual bypass to pretend trouble away, but a radical expression of faith. They celebrated joy as if their prayers already were being answered.
Let’s say this again: they celebrated as if prayers already were being answered!
How many of us can summon that kind of faith? That is the spiritual legacy we inherit. We have the capacity for transformational joy, to build community and reach beyond ourselves, precisely amidst our deepest anxiety, even amidst mortal threat. And we can summon the audacity to live as if our prayers already are being answered.
Some say that living this way can help fulfill our prayers. Others say that it’s feel-good delusion, or something rabbis conjure up because they need something to say on aFriday night. Maybe both sides of the argument are right, though I know which side I’m rooting for.
But beyond intellectual argument, what most inspires me is that our people cultivated collective spiritual strength to live with a joy that pre-celebrated blessings not yet fulfilled. That’s our legacy. That’s our birthright. That’s the power and hope of a renewed spiritual Judaism. It’s our to have and make our own.
To me, that’s what Sukkot is about – not only to celebrate the Season of our Joy and the blessings we harvest now, but also start to celebrate future blessings ready to rain down on us. Now is when we reach for that kind of contagious optimism inside ourselves, in community, in friends and loved ones, and in our tradition.
That’s my blessing for us all this Shabbat – to live in a way that helps bring down blessings, with joy as if our lives depend on it. Because it does.
May this Shabbat and Sukkot bless you with a joy that brings down blessing. Shabbat shalom.