Are we Jews having fun yet?
Like the archetypical frowning clown, we often find ourselves trying to act happy, while crying inside; is the fun of Purim or celebrations at Pesach what truly instill joy in our hearts?
Purim has passed and with it the frantic efforts of so many to be happy. Up the block from our home was a huge street party just hopping with young revelers, their music and dancing, announcing to the world, “Boy, are we happy!” This was not a religious crowd and I consider it unlikely that they were trying to fulfill the Talmudic directive for increased joy in the month of Adar, and yet here they were, performing the mitzvah of the day with fervor.
At the same time, it seems to me that true happiness is not something we can achieve with simple external stimulation. "Are we having fun yet?" is a famous quote from the 1979 comic strip character Zippy the Pinhead. With this statement spouted in his typically non-sequitur style, Zippy brought out the irony of our quest for fun and happiness, both most elusive when desperately sought. Like the archetypical frowning clown, we often find ourselves trying to act happy, while crying inside.
For six years I was the rabbi of one of the largest “Carlebach” synagogues in Jerusalem. Every Friday night scores of young people would gather to sing and dance their way into Shabbat in the estimable tradition of the late great Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. The sweetest moments for me were those when there would be one circle pulsing and swaying in one song, one rhythm, as if with one heart. Inevitably some young whippersnapper would start to drum out a faster beat, others would form a second and separate circle in the middle, and you could feel the forced “happy-clappy” energy of those who had decided that we were not having fun yet. It made me sad.
"It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting." It says in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4. What leads Kohelet to choose sorrow over mirth? Perhaps it is a demanding desire for authenticity, and a sense that when we cry we are being most real.
I will never forget the tragic funeral of a young woman, wed a year, nursing a first child, who died of cancer. After the funeral, and a fierce storm of wailing and tears, a relative said to me, “Wasn’t that the most beautiful funeral you have ever been to?” This rang for me as a completely true and appropriate comment, and looking deep inside myself I found that while I was broken hearted with sadness I was actually also happy. Not happy in a smiling kind of way, rather steeped in a sense of deep fulfillment that grew out of the stark authenticity of what was being shared by all present. Is this not happiness of a higher order?
Our tradition teaches that the book of Kohelet was written by the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, in his old age. The wisdom of the aged, those who have seen it all, can never fully ignore the inherent brokenness of this world. When you think about it, what is surprising is the adamant insistence in life to persevere and survive, seemingly against all odds. British philosopher Samuel Johnson said, “Hope is itself a species of happiness, and perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.”
I know that some are reading these words, and like the “happy-clappy” young men and women of my old shull, are threatened by this order of attitude. Perhaps you feel that I am raining on your parade. That’s ok, yours is the natural attitude of the young and restless. But for me, as we move from Purim to Pesach, both celebrations of redemption from hardship and sorrow, it is in the realm of everlasting hope that I find my joy.
Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz is Dean of Sulam Yaakov, a Beit Midrash for Community Leadership Development in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.