Answering With Great Joy
It’s an occupational hazard. We clergy so delight in bringing Torah to life and liturgy to life that we might unashamedly “geek out” – especially when we do both at the same time. When I link Torah with liturgy in ways that enliven both, my joy can be irrepressible. (Thankfully my New York congregation seems to like it, and my closest friends at least grudgingly tolerate it.)
Morning and evening, traditional liturgy after the Shema brings us to the Sea of Reeds (Ex. 14). We reach the shore of entrapping finitude and then, with holy help, we’re invited to see the impossible into being. By suspending disbelief and experiencing the miracle, we can go free again and again. This journey from bondage to freedom is the journey of Jewish spiritual life, the core of Jewish identity, and the axis around which traditional liturgy dances us every day.
Traditional liturgy even cues just before Mi Khamokha that this singing is joyful: L’kha anu shirah b’simhah rabbah – “They answered [and so we answer] You with song, with great joy.”
Simhah – joy, a heart-lifting “peak experience” of irrepressible wow yippee yay – seems a keystone of Jewish life. We call each celebration a simhah; “happy birthday” translates into yom huledet same’ah. But in Torah and liturgy, simhah is a rare word. Far more common are love (ahavah), awe and fear (yir’ah), commandment (mitzvah) and blessing (brakhah). In the daily Amidah, Shema, V’ahavta and other core liturgies, the word simhah is gapingly absent.
So it’s especially meaningful where “joy” does appear, and one of daily liturgy’s rare places is this introduction to the Beshallah words of liberation – b’simhah rabbah, with great joy. We learn that liberation is joy, and joy is liberating. Maybe that’s why the Psalmist wrote Ivdu et YHVH b’simhah, bo’u l’fanav bir’nanah – “Serve YHVH with joy; come before [God’s presence] with song” (Ps. 100:2). Maybe that’s why Reb Nahman of Breslov (1772-1811) taught that “it’s a great mitzvah to be joyful always” (Likutei Moharan II, 24:1).
It turns out, however, that simhah isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Like any seemingly spiritual path, the path of joy also can be the path of spiritual bypassing – less a way into life’s fullness than a way around it. And joy often is relative – which raises ethical challenges. Should we feel joy at an adversary’s defeat? Troublingly, Torah suggests yes: our ancestors’ Song of the Sea rejoiced at Egyptian death. Talmud’s rabbis squirmed: they imagined that even the angels rejoiced at Beshallah and God famously smacked them down: My children are drowning and you sing? (B.T. Megillah 10b, B.T. Sanhedrin 39b).
We need ways to “answer with great joy” consistent with our ethics – to reach toward liberation in ways that don’t enslave, subjugate or celebrate schadenfreude. R. Yehudah Alter Lieb of Ger (1847-1905), the Sfat Emet, offers one way.
The Sfat Emet observes that we most channel holiness in the world by becoming the clearest possible vessels – in essence, by getting out of our own way and suffusing into the spiritual. To the Sfat Emet, that’s why traditional liturgy invokes the entire Song of the Sea of Beshallah (not just Mi Khamokha but the entire Song) before Barekhu andShema – to invite us to experience a miracle so high and joyful that our individuation temporarily suspends. Only then can we most fully channel the Shema and V’ahavta: only then are we “emptied of all distraction and ready to hear God’s word anew” (Sfat Emet, Va’era 2:40).
This communion – getting out of our own way, daring to experience the miracle (or even the possibility of that kind of total awesome redemption in our own lives), being able to witness this truth almost too good to be believed – is the Sfat Emet’s essence of spiritual joy.
We really can “answer with great joy.” And when we do, like our ancestors before us, we can’t help but sing.