22 May 2020
There is a line in the Talmud that says in facing judgement, we will be asked to account for all the things we saw and did not eat (Kiddushin 48b). Rabbis have since taken this to mean that of our many responsibilities in life, one of them is finding joy. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. Even as we face some of the most daunting circumstances many of us can remember, it seems that part of getting through this open-ended crisis includes identifying and doing the things, however small, that bring us joy.
The New York Times agrees. Earlier this week, they published a collection of essays about relishing in small pleasures “in spite of everything.” For some the J.O.J.V.V.S., or the Joy of Jogging Very Very Slowly, is giving them a new appreciation for opting out of a competitive mentality. Or for others the J.O.T.H., or the Joy of The Hate-Watch, captures the satisfaction that comes from knowing oneself well enough to predict which movies and TV shows we are sure to detest.
What joy looks like for each of us no doubt varies widely. For me, I treasure the social-distanced walks I take with my father. I have rediscovered the joy of gardening—of planting something with my own two hands and watching it grow. I am thoroughly enjoying watching my colleagues interact with their children on Zoom and introducing my own kids to my teammates when they pass by the screen. Like many people, I have also been taking new recipes for a spin in the kitchen, which has allowed me to tap into my creative side with little to no risk (I’ll be attempting The Washington Post’s garlicky one-skillet chicken this weekend).
Of course, touting the value of joy is one thing, actually feeling it is another. Given the depth and breadth of suffering today, is joy really a priority?
I can sense in some of my conversations how conflicted people are when they express positive emotions or admit that there are indeed some upsides to be found in quarantine. We feel guilty when these thoughts arise and are hesitant to admit that along with the heartbreak and the challenges, these times have also allowed us the opportunity to see our lives in a new light, slow down, and reconnect with things we used to take for granted.
Joy cannot and should not replace compassion. We cannot turn a blind eye to the hardship that our community members and fellow human beings around the world are facing. As Jews, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to protect the vulnerable and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to live lives of dignity no matter the circumstance. But just as we cannot back away from our responsibility to heal the cracks in the world around us, neither can we back away from appreciating the good in life. This, too, is a fundamental Jewish value. In the toughest of times, it is not only understandable but, in fact, advisable to seek out and embrace joy.
In the coming week, I encourage you to lean into those moments of joy that appear for you and do what you can to share that feeling with others.