by Maggid David Arfa
I’d like to speak about Joy. I know that Elul is upon us; a time for relentless self-reflection, spurred on by the blasts of shofar. And yet, the rabbis in their complexity have added another dimension to Elul, Love. Remember the acronym for Elul? It’s from the Song of Songs, Ani l’dodi v’dodi li – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Reciprocal love is spiraling back and forth right here in Elul along with our lists of how we missed the mark. Isn’t this worthy of attention? What might it mean?
I’m not sure, but it’s certainly not insignificant. Rabbi Akiva said that if all of Tanach (the five books plus all the prophets plus all the writings) is the Holy Temple, then the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! The Song of Songs is sensuous and loving, filled with sexual desire and yearning; lovers are seeking fulfillment on every page. We all know that steamy passion can easily burn and destroy, and yet, Rabbi Akiva holds this up as the archetypal place of holiness. Blessed Be.
This is why I’m turning to joy this Elul. The Song of Songs is reminding us that loving and desirous energy defines our relationship with the world, with the Source of Life. Far from being unrequited, it is given back fully. And then, when I receive the love I’m desiring, I feel fully me, fully seen, feeling even fuller than me! I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. This face of loving joy is also a face of Teshuvah.
I heard that the great psychoanalyst Milton Ericson tells a story of a mean nasty man who never smiled. He became thunderstruck and lovesick with the new school teacher in town. He asked to see her formally, and she said, only if you clean up your ways and try to smile once in awhile. The goofiest grin came over his face, kindness filled his heart and he never looked back. They lived happily ever after, smiling and holding hands like young fools until the end of their days. Who says love is not powerful!
But wait, if Rabbi Akiva is saying that this great love is our birthright, then it also means there is nothing to earn. I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. Our very natural relationship with the world itself is to love and be loved in return merely because we are alive! Why is it so hard to imagine and carry this intense level of joyful loving?
Teshuvah can help me learn the ways that I actively block this joyous knowing; the many ways that I pickle myself in worry and bewitch myself in fear. The ways we are unaware that our lifted hand blocks the sun and yet we can only whine and wonder why the light is so dim.
The social scientist Brene Brown adds another facet. She asked why is it so hard to maintain our joy? Her research discovered our fear of the vulnerability that leads to grief. She noticed a widespread and uncanny ability to use fantasies of disaster to try and inoculate ourselves. You know, the way we can look at something beautiful and say, ‘uh-oh, what’s coming’. The sad truth is that these fantasies do not protect us at all, they just rob us of our joy.
Amazingly, her remedy, her tikkun is gratitude. Practices of gratitude in the moment; utterances of thankfulness for what is here right now, irregardless of what may happen in the future. Hmmmh, the rabbis teach that 100 blessings a day keeps the Dr. away (or something like that-smiles). A good practice for Elul, eh? With blessings of gratitude, I can remember the utter uniqueness that is life; the perpetual joyous singing that is the symphony of the natural world. Fortified with joy, I can face the stark truth about the many ways that I and my community inflict personal and planetary harm. Like Milton Ericson’s mean man, If I’m bathed in love who knows what I will be capable of!
Let the Joy deeds of gratitude be fruitful and multiply! As Rumi said, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” In the name of Joy, let’s bless all that we hold precious… the Rabbi’s blessings, yes, and even more! A child’s song, a friends laughter, cooking (and eating) a special meal for/with loved ones, silent welcoming of dawn and dusk, calling good morning to the birds, saying Shehechianu when the Junco’s come in the fall and the constellation Orion appears overhead, when the chicory blooms in July and the tomatoes ripen in August are all for me special joyful moments worthy of honoring with a blessing of gratitude. What other myriads of blessings would you like to add?
May your Elul be meaningful and filled with the joy that only love can bring. Here’s a joyous love poem adapted from psalm 150.
Jump, Sing Out,
Raise Joy, right here in your chair.
Celebrate life’s source
in your home, in green fields,
at rivers edge, from high ledges.
Remember how we are supported,
as lilies in open water.
Blast your car horn,
turn up the radio,
sing loud with the windows rolled down.
Whisper love at night. Remember Nothing,
than moan with delight,
whistle with puckered lips,
click your tongue.
Tap one, no, stomp
both your feet;
pop fingers, clap hands, slap knees,
hoot, howl, bang your chest,
clash and rattle your tin pots.
Raise joy high with this holy commotion.
With every single breath. Hallelujah. —Adapted from psalm 150 by Maggid David Arfa