How Does Judaism Understand the Attribute of Joy?

How does Judaism understand the attribute of joy?

I was reflecting about this question over the weekend preparing to officiate at a wedding of a wonderful young lady who I have known since childhood. She had lost her beloved father to an untimely death a year and one half ago. She was marrying a fine young man from a good family. The question for the couple was how to find a space to remember her father during the ceremony while preserving the joyousness of the wedding day.

The Jewish wedding blessings depict joy as a wedding feast in Jerusalem full of young people feasting and singing. “Adonai our God, may there always be heard in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem voices of joy and gladness, of happiness, voices of bride and groom, the jubilant voices of those joined in marriage under the huppah (the wedding canopy), the voices of young people feasting and singing.” (quoting from Isaiah and Jeremiah).

Looking at this text a little more closely we can identify a number of associations with joy in Jewish tradition.
1. A feast. Collective eating is a time of celebration. The joy of the feast seems very central to Judaism, especially if you think of all the feast days in the Jewish calendar and the life cycle events in Jewish life that call for feasts. The word for feast in Hebrew is “mishteh” which comes from the root Shin Tav, Heh which means to drink. All Jewish feasts include wine and often include a blessing over the day or occasion that is marked with the drinking of wine.
2. Singing. Collective singing creates joy. Or perhaps it is a sign of the presence of joy. Nowadays you can see a joyous person walking around singing her favorite melody while listening on earphones to it playing on her iphone. But singing in Judaism is a collective activity.
3. Moment in life: Joy becomes more possible at specific moments in the cycle of life. This texts specifically mentions young people. I was very cognizant at this wedding that the energy was flowing from the peers of the young couple, while those of us older celebrants hovered in the background. Joy here is associated with youthful vigor. But what joy is there for those who are older? Is joy only a preserve of the young?
4. In Jerusalem and its environs. Is joy more possible in specific places? Does joy flow more easily in a unique locale? Certain places in our lives bring joy to us. Jewish tradition conjures a vision of Jerusalem as the ideal setting for joy.

The text might be presenting us with the ideal circumstances that will provoke joyousness. But even after these blessings are recited at a wedding a Jewish couple breaks a glass. The original meaning of the breaking was to remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem even at the height of joy. The breaking ritual which takes place in the context of a feast in the Talmud was intended to interrupt the singing and reminds the celebrants that the Jerusalem of feasts and singing lies in waste. Nowadays, when Jerusalem is restored as a Jewish city, most people interpret the glass breaking differently.

But regardless of our historical moment, the ritual of breaking the glass reveals something insightful about how joy is understood in Judaism. There is no perfect joy. All joy, authentic joy is tempered joy. Joy is available to us, but it always has an admixture along with sorrow or disappointment. Jewish teaching is concerned about limiting euphoria or ecstasy just as it seeks to limit excessive sorrow and mourning. Joy in Judaism is cherished, but true joy is always tempered. This is one of the ways that Judaism teaches a middle way.

At the wedding this past weekend, the young couple decided to openly recall the beloved father of the bride. It was a tearful, poignant moment. This moment was an island of sorrow in a sea of a joyous outpouring.

Part of my address to the couple addressed the question of how we recreate joy in our lives. This is what I wrote,

Tov Lev Mishteh Tamid: A joyful heart is a feast without end.” (Proverbs 15) Today, we have a feast, a celebration of this wonderful union, of this new faithful house amongst the Jewish people. But in what sense is this a feast without end-Mishteh Tamid-which our verse in Mishlei-Proverbs describes? Doesn’t the feast end several hours from now when your cups will run over with all the happiness you have absorbed today from family and friends?

The verse from Mishlei-Proverbs is suggesting something deeper. It is saying to you that the key to keeping your hearts joyful and open is to never stop having feasts, to make your table at home a sacred altar for Sabbath and festival celebrations, for hospitality, for many new faces which God-willing will include your own progeny.

We have an ancient tradition to invite new faces-Panim Hadashot- who did not attend the huppah to celebrate with the bride and groom in the subsequent days to the wedding ceremony. The notion behind this beautiful tradition is to extend the joy of a great moment in life to others beyond our immediate circle. This is the ideal of every new Jewish household-that we enliven our tables and feasts with new faces, to share our love with others. This is the sense of Mishteh Tamid, of an unending feast, that both of you, blessed with open and joyful hearts, will share your joy with others through an unending series feasts that last a lifetime.”
May we be blessed with unending feasts.

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
August 8, 2012/20 Menachem Av 5772

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