At our 5784 Kol Nidre service, Rabbi Steven Philp delivered a drash on the sacred call to experience joy. You can listen to this sermon on the Contact Chai podcast or watch it on the Mishkan YouTube channel.
In 2009, several videos circulated of a man dancing on a hill at a music festival (you might be familiar with them). He starts off alone, and slightly off rhythm, as everyone watches him. His dance moves are idiosyncratic to say the least; it’s a lot of flailing limbs. But he doesn’t seem to care that others are pointing and laughing, or that people have taken out their phones to record him. As an observer, it’s a bit painful to watch. This man is embarrassing himself, in front of all these people. Then suddenly, someone joins him. This guy’s dance moves are also erratic, wild, careening across the grass. And then one more person, and another; people begin running – literally running! – to join in, until the whole hillside is up and dancing. Given the smiles on everyone’s faces, it seems like the same people that were pointing and laughing had wanted to dance all along; they had just been waiting for someone else to give them permission.
The thing is, this video is not about dancing (would we call what he did dancing? Honestly, not sure and not sure if it matters). Because what that man was actually doing – and what he encouraged everyone else on that hillside to do – was to be fully present and fully himself.
What is it that holds us back from being present, from being ourselves?
On Yom Kippur, we take away the crutches that help us be more palatable for social consumption: we wear simple clothing, we refrain from sex, we don’t work, now we put down our phones, we fast. This is not to say that clothes, or sex, or jobs, or social media, or food, or alcohol are inherently bad (Judaism is not an ascetic tradition and indulgence, when done thoughtfully, can be a way of celebrating we’re alive) – but all of these things can be, and are so often, used to edit who we are whether it’s hiding our flaws, projecting status, or distracting us from how we really feel.
Today is about stripping away these things to ask who are we, really, when we are present and ourselves. Right now, you have nowhere else and no one else to be.
Our tradition tells us that this kind of full-body, full-minded presence is more than just an awareness of where and who you are – it’s the definition of joy. Rabbi Alan Lew once wrote that joy is “any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to.” It is showing up as our whole selves – a celebration of both the parts of ourselves we are proud of and the parts of ourselves we’re still working on, our strengths and our rough edges. Joy is gratitude for being alive, here and now, even if being alive isn’t always easy. Joy is being you.
Joy is being you – and letting the concerns of what others might think fade into background noise. And I’m not just talking about the people who are pointing and laughing at you (because let’s be honest, we think people are doing this more often than they actually are). I’m talking about stilling the small voice that exists inside each of us, the one that tells you to be embarrassed or ashamed of what you would do if no one was watching. Imagine if Beyoncé, or Georgia O’Keeffe, or Harvey Milk had held back from sharing their full selves with others because they refused to be different. The world would be a more impoverished place.
And this isn’t about not feeling anxious or afraid (I’m pretty sure Beyoncé still gets butterflies in her stomach; in fact she once shared that when she feels nervous, she knows that she is going to put on a good show). No, these individuals teach us about the incredible possibility that comes from taking the risk of owning our joy – not despite, but alongside our fear.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, a Hasidic master who by all accounts grappled with severe depression throughout his short life, once taught mitzvah gedolah li’hiyot b’simchah: it is a great mitzvah, if not the greatest mitzvah, to live with joy. It would be easy to dismiss this teaching if we only understand joy as happiness. Given the brokenness that exists in the world around us it would be naive, if not deeply irresponsible, to aspire toward a perpetual state of bliss. But joy is more complex than that. This is the not-so-secret secret of Judaism: to live with joy is l’chaim, to choose life without expectation or pretense, encountering each moment with that full-bodied, full-minded presence I mentioned earlier. Each moment – including the difficult ones, including the truly terrible ones. It is this unapologetic insistence on living that has sustained our people through millennia shot through with tragedy.
Our rituals invite us to practice this complicated kind of joy. Even the hardest ones. Of the 613 mitzvot enumerated by our tradition, burying the dead is singled out as one of the most (if not the most) important. It is an act of incredible kindness for which there is no benefit or personal gain. After the coffin is lowered into the ground and a handful of soil from Israel is sprinkled over the lid, every person present takes turns shoveling dirt into the open grave. There is no sleight of hand here, no attempt to elide this experience. The heaviness of the shovel, the smell of raw earth, the dull thud of soil hitting the casket – this is what the rabbis call simchah shel mitzvah, the joy that comes from doing a mitzvah with an awareness of body and a fullness of mind that can only happen when we show up as our whole selves: our messy, unrestrained heartbreak reminding us, with a painful sort of gratitude, that we are alive and we are here.
When I sit down with families and friends after someone they love has died, our conversation rarely focuses on what the author David Brooks once called resume virtues, which he defines as “the skills you bring to the marketplace.” Awards and accomplishments, if they are mentioned, are usually saved for the obituary. What folks talk about instead are their eulogy virtues, the qualities that made them them, what we might call their joy: the ways they showed up fully present, fully themselves. It was needlepoint, or bird watching, or their exasperating but sweet habit of having long conversations with strangers in the checkout line. It was the guarantee that they would always pick up the phone when you called them in a crisis or their insistence that they had to be the last to say goodbye, to the point that they would stand in the middle of the driveway and wave at you until your car turned the corner at the end of their street. It was their tough love or contagious laughter. It was the way they danced to the beat of their own drum. It was how they lived authentically, bucking trends or traditions. Our joy is what defines us, because joy is what happens when we are us.
There is a story about Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, a Hadisic luminary of the 18th century. Word travels among his disciples that he is on his deathbed, so they rush to his side to ensure that he is comforted in his final moments. They find him crying uncontrollably. One student asks, “Rabbi, why are you crying? In your life, you have been as wise as Moses and as kind as Abraham.” Through his tears, Zusha responds, “When I die and stand before the heavenly court, they won’t ask me: Zusha, why weren’t you as wise as Moses or as kind as Abraham? They will ask me: Zusha, why weren’t you Zusha?”
Between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are tasked with the project of teshuvah, which is often (and unhelpfully) translated as repentance – when really, it means to return. Not to become something or someone else, but to come back to what makes you you. It is the work of stripping away the things that inhibit us from being true to ourselves, the things that prevent Zusha from being Zusha, me from being me, or you from being you: grudges and regret, expectations both socially prescribed and self-imposed, timelines of what you should accomplish, and how you should achieve it, and by when. To do teshuvah is to practice being fully present, fully you. The Talmud tells the story that one day Rabbi Eliezer was sitting with his students and said: “Do teshuvah one day before your death.” Of course the students responded, it’s impossible to know when we’ll die (this is literally the theme of our liturgy this season: we don’t know when or how we will die – by fire, water? Wealthy or poor? Peacefully or painfully?). To which Rabbi Eliezer said: “Exactly, so go do teshuvah now.” The life we have is limited. Why spend it being anyone other than yourself.
Several years ago I had the privilege of meeting Edie Windsor. She was a remarkable woman who spent her life fighting for LGBTQ civil rights – and I was lucky enough to know her as a congregant. She was with her wife Thea for over forty years; they met in 1963, and in 1967 got engaged. Thea proposed with a circular diamond pin, fearing that a traditional ring would out them at a time when it was still legal to fire someone for being gay. Edie and Thea maintained their relationship both through the expected challenges of growing old with someone – and through the unexpected obstacles of legalized discrimination and Thea’s progressive multiple sclerosis. After Thea died, Edie was denied spousal inheritance rights. She took their case all the way to the Supreme Court – and won. United States v. Windsor was a pivotal case in securing marriage equality.
At the party that followed the Supreme Court’s decision, I went up to Edie to offer my congratulations. I asked her, how did she do it – maintain a forty-plus-year relationship, weather hardship and heartbreak, take on the government of the United States (and win)? Now, I need to paint a picture of Edie Windsor. She was proudly Jewish and unapologetically a New Yorker. She loved a well-tailored pantsuit and her blonde hair always fell in impeccable waves on either side of her face. She was tiny; the top of her head probably came up to my chest. So Edie gets this glimmer in her eye, leans in close, and says: Two things. One, keep it hot. And two, do not delay joy.
I’ll let you all figure out the first one on your own. But I want to take a moment to talk about her second point.
Do not delay joy. And because of who she was and because of the life she lived, I don’t think Edie meant happiness or fun. I think she meant joy in that most Jewish sense of the word: to show up fully, and fully yourself, in every moment we are given.
I know we all have it. I’ll call it the drawer of delayed joy (it could be a shelf, or a basket, or a corner of the closet – but it’s a standard feature of most homes). It’s the place you keep that really nice candle that you’ll eventually burn when company comes over, or the bottle of wine that you’ll open when you have the right reason to celebrate, or the book you’ll read when you have a moment to sit down, or the watercolors you’ll pick up again when you’re less busy, or the list of friends you’ve been meaning to call, or the meditation practice you keep meaning to come back to, or… you get the picture. For me it was a box of bath bombs I was saving for an evening of self-care. They had been sitting in the drawer for so long that they had turned to chalk and crumbled.
I had to Marie Kondo those bath bombs because they no longer sparked joy. In fact they had turned into a source of regret, a reminder of something that I had been meaning to do – but never did. I really should have used them before they became unusable.
To take Edie’s advice is to grab hold of the time we have now, without reservation. To burn the candle. To drink the wine. To tell those we love that we love them. To laugh out loud. To have that good cry. To dance. To not delay joy is to get rid of all the stuff that is holding us back from living our lives, unapologetically and authentically.
And speaking of Marie Kondo, she recently admitted that – with several young children running around the house – she had “kind of given up” on keeping it tidy (I know some of us are probably feeling a little vindicated by that confession, me included – see the aforementioned bath bombs). But I actually think that her letting the house get a bit cluttered to spend more time with her kids speaks to the message that Marie was always sharing: that because our time and energy are limited, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring (or if tomorrow will even happen) we need to be willing to let go of the stuff that doesn’t spark joy so that we have more space for the things and the people that do. And here’s the thing about that term. What we translate as “spark joy,” tokimeku in Japanese, is better understood as the sudden awareness of your heart beating in your chest. It could be because we’re falling in love. It could be because we’re excited. But it could also be the pang of nostalgia for a time long past or because we’re remembering someone we’ve lost. The Marie Kondo method is about bringing awareness and intention to each moment, whether it’s folding your clothes or playing with your children. It’s about joy – full-throated, fully felt.
The lesson here is that joy doesn’t just happen. It takes our attention and our presence. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who served as Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, once wrote that joy is “the grateful acceptance and celebration of today.” This day, whether difficult or delightful (and let’s be honest, most of our days are a bit of both – that’s life). As the psalm goes zeh ha’yom asah Adonai, nagilah v’nismechah vo – this is the day God has given us, let us celebrate it. Let us find joy. Not delayed or deferred. Not lost in the clutter of past regrets or future concerns – and certainly not lost in mindless scrolling, or retail therapy, or drinking too much, or any of the other ways we distract ourselves from being fully present. Too often we treat busyness as a virtue and will find anything to fill the gaps in our lives. Sometimes I think we’re afraid that doing nothing is an indictment of our worth. This is why we prohibit these things on Yom Kippur, quieting the noise just long enough that we might hear that still, small voice within us that is a reminder of who we really are, what we really want. It’s much easier said than done.
But that which is worth doing is rarely easy. Mitzvah gedolah li’hiyot b’simchah: it is a great mitzvah, if not the greatest mitzvah, to live with joy. I believe that this is the best thing we can do in response to a world that teaches us that we are lacking or less than. We are constantly barraged with messages telling us that a product or experience, almost always something that can be bought or achieved, will bring us a sense of wholeness and therefore happiness. This is the lie of consumerism – and runs counter to the fundamental claim of our tradition that each of us is inherently good enough. Yes, even today on Yom Kippur. We recognize the ways we have fallen short of our fullest expression of self because we believe in our ability to change. To say that each of us deserves a second chance to do better, alongside the belief that we have the capacity to do so, is an unequivocal affirmation of our worth.
I also believe that to live with joy is the best thing we can do in response to hate. This isn’t easy. I imagine that none of us are immune to the news of increased (and increasingly violent) antisemitism in this country. Although we live at the safest moment in the history of our people, the past teaches us that we should never get too comfortable or too complacent with this fact. We never know when the promise of our liturgy – who by fire and who by water, who by extremist and who by terrorist – will come for any of us. I hate very few things (and Judaism teaches that hate is only reserved for the worst of what we do to each other), but I truly hate that I am always aware of where the exits are. I hate that when I’m walking on the sidewalk a car slowing down or a person following too close behind me puts me on alert. I hate that bulky bags or bulky clothes on a stranger, the kind that could hide a gun, make me uncomfortable. And I hate that guns are so easy to access, which makes the hate that others feel toward me and the people I love unnecessarily deadly.
But a life only filled with hate is no life at all, because in the end hate leaves no room for anything else. To live – vivaciously and vibrantly, in our wholeness of being – we must live with joy, the kind that helps us fully feel each and every moment we have been given as the most authentic expression of the person that only we can be. This is not an act of naiveté. It is an act of defiance. The Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that it takes “religious courage” to rejoice. Despair is easy, but to diminish who we are, to disappear – that’s exactly what the bigots want. Joy calls us to be even more of the thing that they hate: more Jewish, more queer, more feminine, more trans and nonbinary, more racially and culturally diverse, more us – to do exactly what we’re doing right now, here, observing Yom Kippur (which is nothing if not distinctly Jewish). Joy in the face of hate is an incredible act of spiritual resistance.
Last year on Rosh HaShanah, I spoke about the resilience and resolve it takes to move through the brokenness we experience, whether it’s of our own creation or due to the simple fact that sometimes life is hard. It had only been a few months since I had finalized my divorce and suddenly I found myself on the other side of one of the most difficult seasons of my life. I cried when we sang: min ha’meitzar karati yah, v’anani b’meirhav yah – from a narrow place I called out, and You answered me with expansiveness. I had come through narrowness into a new, spacious sense of self. There was freedom, but also ambivalence, and some bewilderment, and the uncomfortable question of – well, what now? I had filled so much of my life with worry and regret, with meeting the milestones of a marriage, a house, a career, with trying to repair a relationship that was broken (and in the end, was meant to stay that way) that I had never had the space to think about – much less pursue – what joy looked like for me.
I think getting divorced was the first truly selfish thing that I have done. And I don’t mean selfish in an uncaring or careless way. When we’re sorting through the clutter in our homes, Marie Kondo says we should gather each thing that we are thinking about throwing away and take a few minutes to hold it, remember what you appreciated about it, and say thank you before putting it aside. Together and apart, my ex-husband and I had sorted through seven years of memories and milestones to decide whether this was something we should keep. Choosing to end my marriage was a painful and deliberate decision to prioritize my wellbeing over anyone else’s expectations of how I should spend the remainder of my life – however long or short it may be.
So there I was in my “eat, pray, love” moment, trying to discover who I was outside of the narrowness of socially prescribed shoulds and shouldn’ts. To be fully present and fully me. To take a risk – and no longer delay joy.
The problem is that I have a very low threshold for embarrassment. I think this is something that plagues a lot of us who grew up in the participation trophy generation – not that it was bad to celebrate everyone’s contribution to the team, but hidden underneath was the subtle message that the worst thing you could do is to do something not deserving of a passing grade or a gold star. I’ve never been one to attempt something (especially in public) that wasn’t practiced or prepared, or do something that might make me look goofy or cause people to make fun of me – even if it’s something I really want to do. Every time Rabbi Lizzi asks us to get up and dance, I am grateful that I can pretend to be really preoccupied with my prayer book and music stand. I want to be the person who dances with abandon… but what can I say, it’s hard.
It’s hard — and I have probably missed out on a lot of joy worrying about what others might think.
About a month ago I found myself at a music festival with my boyfriend. We had arrived early to see Aluna, a top-ten artist of his, and – because it was far away and because it was still rush hour – the festival grounds were fairly empty. There were a couple hundred people hanging around the stage (which for that kind of space, isn’t a lot). The set was great – and was very much dance forward. But folks were mostly tapping their toes and nodding their heads; no one was really moving. Of course my boyfriend grabs me by the hand and takes me to the very front of the crowd, where people have left a twenty-foot gap between them and the stage; he wasn’t going to miss this moment. He starts to dance. And he starts to make me dance with him. I actually love to dance, but usually in the anonymity of the crowd – but here we were very much alone. The thoughts flood in: oh god, not here, everyone is looking, everyone is laughing, we are embarrassing ourselves, I look stupid, we aren’t safe. He can tell something is up (he has a wonderful and incredibly annoying way of knowing when I’m holding a feeling), so he grabs my hands, looks me in the eyes, and says: hey, be here in this moment with me.
Be here in this moment with me. So I take a deep breath — and start dancing. It’s so hard to push down all those fears, but step-by-step it becomes a little easier and my body becomes a little looser and my heart becomes a little freer. And suddenly in the space that had only been occupied by worry and concern, joy – unapologetic and undelayed – also emerges.
And guess what, people joined us. They had just been waiting for someone else to give them permission to be fully present, fully them.
I believe that in every moment, each of us is being invited into joy: to bring awareness to the time you have, to do what it is you feel called to do, to be wholly and unapologetically yourself. If you can clear out some of the clutter, create a little space for silence, and listen closely, you’ll hear it – God whispering: be here in this moment with me. But whether or not you’ll dance, that’s up to you.