How can we be forced to have an emotional reaction?
As a rabbi and as a parent I often find myself talking with folks about their emotions, reminding them (and myself) that our emotional reactions are usually spontaneous, they come upon us from within, outside of our control. Experiences, things people say to us, words we hear can make us happy, sad, nervous, excited, anxious, or fearful, and we can’t do anything about it. What we can control, however, is what we do with those emotions, like how we express them, what actions we take in response, or how long we choose to carry them with us.
So whether that’s me helping one of my children use their words (as opposed to their fists) when they are angry, or helping someone who has recently experienced a loss find outlets for their grief and sadness (or be comfortable enjoying a moment with friends,) in each case I tell them that our emotions are reactions and part of who we are, we cannot control them.
Interestingly though, in the Torah portion this week, we are presented with a starkly different process of having an emotion, we are commanded to have an emotion: joy.
As Moses is giving his final set of instructions to the Israelites, he tells them, “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Eternal your God is allowing you, and grants you safety from all your enemies around you and you live in security…you shall rejoice before the Eternal your God with your sons and daughters,” (Deut. 12:10-12).
While Moses makes clear that our major concerns, like safety and security will have been met, it still seems like a high bar to command that the Israelites be joyous. We have learned in the millennia from Moses’ time to ours that our disposition is the outcome not of one specific event, but the tapestry of experiences that we each carry in our memories, a mix of painful and pleasurable memories (along with plenty that are pareve.) Safety and security are not the only ingredient to joy. In our own time, most of us enjoy the type of personal safety and political security that the Israelites would have gained when they entered into the land, but for hosts of reasons many of us would find it difficult to say that we are joyful, understandably so.
So how then, can our tradition and our Torah command that we be joyous? Ideally, the Torah would want us to recognize that the good in our lives outweigh the bad, especially the tremendous good that come from security. But realistically, our psyches don’t work that way. Instead, Rabbi Nachman of Bretzlav suggested, we should “fake it til we make it.” “It is a great mitzvah to always be happy, and to make every effort to determinedly keep depression and gloom at bay,” he taught. “Or, if we ourselves are in a state of joy but see others who are not, we ought to seek to lighten their mood. “Sometimes, when people are happy and dance, they grab someone standing outside [the circle] who is depressed and gloomy. Against his will they bring him into the circle of dancers; against his will, they force him to be happy along with them.”
In Rabbi Nachman’s mind, the easiest way to pursue joyfulness is by doing it with others. This idea is something he no doubt learned from earlier rabbis, who taught that the plural nature of the commandment in the Torah portion (the “you” in the verse is plural, the biblical “y’all”) taught that for a person to fulfill this obligation they, their spouse, their children, and even the poor and despondent around them. For them, true joy could not be experienced alone, it could only arise in a communal setting.
So, the command that we find joy is also a command to bind ourselves to those around us. As part of a community, we know that our fate, and therefore our joyousness, is in part tied up with that of our neighbors. If we have reason to be joyful but those around us do not, we ought to share in our blessings where we can. If we are struggling to find joy in our lives, we should accept the invitation from those near to us to lighten our hearts. God willing, that joy will snowball, and raise each of our spirits until we have found the joy, not only that we have been looking for, but that the Holy One has designed for us.
Rabbi Greg Weisman