Shabbat Mishpatim: The Necessary Subversiveness of Delight

Be Happy, It’s Adar!

How is it possible that we can be commanded to be happy on a given day? That on the first of Adar, two weeks from Purim, we should somehow manage to be joyful? 

The more we know of life, the more we are saddened. Global communication brings news of a friend’s death, a mourner’s bereavement. The childlike delight in falling snow leaves us worried about our unhoused neighbors, threatened with death by this very same beauty. And the most common response to those who have been given the life saving COVID-19 vaccine is anger and suspicion, not joy and hope.

And here comes the subversive Jewish tradition, on this erev Shabbat Mishpatim, insisting that despite it all, we must pick ourselves up, lift up our faces, and find a way to laugh, to feel delight, nevertheless.

One of the best behavioral practices for depression is to “fake it til you make it.” Don’t feel like smiling? go to a mirror, look at your face. Tempted to give way to a frown? push the edges of your mouth up anyway. It can literally make a difference in how you feel when you act “as if” you feel.

Perhaps that’s the command: go through the motions. Although we think of this as a negative, in Jewish history it has actually been a lifesaving practice. Consider this five minute meditation: I invite you to try it as you prepare for Shabbat:

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Read:

We visualize life as but a means for experiencing fulfillment. We talk about things “worth living for,” yet in our superficial view of life, we fail to appreciate the most profound joy of all: life itself.  – Rabbi Hayim Shmulevitz (1902-1979)

Speak aloud:

“Mouth filled with laughter, lips with shouts of joy.”

Practice:

Step away from your busyness and savor a moment; stay with it until you can feel the joy that is available to you.

– Alan Morinis

Every Day, Holy Day: the Jewish Tradition of Mussar

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To delight in the moment is to lift our hearts past the false gods that command us to number our days in misery. Put on the cheerful music, laugh out loud at a silly old skit on Youtube, read a poem – and know that you have acted as courageously as a human being can.

shabbat shalom

A Brief for the Defense

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not

be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not

be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women

at the fountain are laughing together between

the suffering they have known and the awfulness

in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody

in the village is very sick. There is laughter

every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,

and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,

we lessen the importance of their deprivation.

We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,

but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world. To make injustice the only

measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,

we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

We stand at the prow again of a small ship

anchored late at night in the tiny port

looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront

is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.

To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat

comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth

all the years of sorrow that are to come.

  • Jack Gilbert, in REFUSING HEAVEN (Knopf, 2005)

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