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Rabbi Jessica K. Barolsky - Rosh Hashanah - 1st Day - 2015/5776




Inside Out Judaism
Rosh Hashanah Morning 5776

A Pixar movie came out a few months ago that purported to give us insight into what goes on in our heads, how some of our strongest emotions work together (or compete with one another), and how the workings of those emotions influence the way we act and react to the world around us. Inside Out took us inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley, where the movie’s main characters are her anthropomorphized emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, who guide Riley and sometimes compete with one another for control of her actions. The movie left my own emotions swirling, and it left me wondering about our emotional relationship with Judaism.

When we are young, Judaism is about Joy. We gloss over Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, or we ignore them, deny them, and minimize them. Judaism is about fun! And music! And dancing! And art projects! And food! Judaism is all about joy, all the time. Without declaring it aloud, it is clear that we want our children to know only how joyful Judaism is and to show them, for as long as possible, how much joy there is to be found in Jewish traditions.

In the movie Inside Out, the character Joy is almost a fairy or a sprite, she seems to have wings, she is yellow, practically glowing, and she tries to make a joke out of every situation, keeping things happy and light as much as possible, always changing the subject when something goes wrong, and looking for the best in every situation. The problem is that when times get hard, Joy has no tools for dealing with them. When happy-go-lucky, silly Riley, the 11-year-old whose emotions we met, struggles when her family moves across the country, Joy can only overpower all the other emotions for so long. Eventually, the others have their moment, and Riley’s life is driven for a time by Fear, Disgust, and Anger. In the movie, it’s a learning experience for the emotions. In Judaism, we don’t always get there. We shut down and turn away when the joy is hard to find. In Judaism, we’re not always willing to put in the work to involve all of our emotions.

Judaism really is, in so many ways, all about Joy. We joke about how many of our holidays could be outlined by “they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” In other words, yes we went through tough times, but we made it through—let’s celebrate and be happy about it! Most of our holidays are joyous; the ones that aren’t are considered exceptions. We are supposed to enjoy Shabbat, our most important and most frequent holiday. Our Bible reminds us, “ivdu et Adonai b’simcha, bo’u l’fanav birnana,” ‘serve God in joy, go before God with song. The Talmud teaches us, “Our rabbis taught, one should not stand up to pray while immersed in sorrow . . . but only while rejoicing in the performance” and that “the Divine Presence rests upon man neither through gloom nor thorough sloth nor through frivolity . . . only through a matter of joy”. Our life cycle events are mostly celebrations; even when marking death, we are explicit about honoring a loved one’s life and praising God, the Source of Life. On most Jewish occasions, like last night at the start of Rosh Hashanah, we sanctify time with wine, a symbol of joy.

The Reform movement has long emphasized the joy of Judaism. The early reformers in Germany edited the synagogue service to make it more engaging and perhaps more joyful for its attendees: they shortened the service; they added a well-trained cantor and a choir to enhance the professionalism and joy of our services; they added a sermon (perhaps not their best change to guarantee joy), trying to help us better connect to the Hebrew text we read.

This morning, we will read a story of joy in our Torah. For many years, the portion we have read this first day of Rosh Hashanah has been the binding of Isaac, a story many react to with sadness, anger, and disgust. However, our new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, has returned to the more traditional Rosh Hashanah morning Torah portions, moving the binding of Isaac to tomorrow’s service, and starting today with the words, “And God remembered Sarah.” After Sarah and Abraham have struggled throughout their married life to have a child together, after Sarah gave up and offered Abraham her handmaid Hagar, with whom Abraham had Ishmael, God has told Sarah that she would have a child. Sarah responds in both joy and disbelief: she laughs; she is 90 years old, and Abraham is 100. But the portion we will read this morning opens with the words that ring perhaps more true at this time of year than any other: God remembered Sarah. We experience pure joy along with Sarah and Abraham, celebrating the birth of this long, long-awaited child, Isaac, and mixing our joy with theirs as we share the timeless joy of welcoming a child who has been hoped for, prayed for, waited for, for so very long. At least for the beginning of this Torah portion, we respond only out of joy.

In the movie Inside Out, Riley’s emotions discover that each of them has unique power, and they learn to enrich experiences by looking at them with more than one emotion. After reviewing one memory over and over, Joy discovers that Sadness was lurking in the background of that event, a losing hockey game—and that it was Sadness who enabled Riley to be comforted by her parents and then rejoin her friends—allowing Joy to take over again. As Joy and the others discover how they can complement one another, the different parts of Riley’s personality grow stronger and more interconnected than ever before. When Judaism is built solely on Joy, anything that isn’t joyful doesn’t quite fit in. As children, that conflict leads us to rebel against Judaism. As adults, that conflict between expecting joy and experiencing life turns us away from Judaism even more, because it’s not the Judaism we learned to love as kids. We feel disgusted when Judaism isn’t joyous all the time. We feel sad if we don’t show up for the happy occasions. We feel afraid when we show up for Jewish occasions that aren’t joyous. And so mostly, we stop showing up much at all.

For too many of us in our Jewish lives, relying solely on the Joy of Judaism means that as soon as Joy gets lost or overshadowed, we give up. As soon as religious school gets too serious, we give up on it, writing it off as a waste of time or less important than soccer practice. As soon as a bad thing happens in our lives, we give up on God—after all, we learned when we were kids that God made all the good things in the world, and therefore God must be responsible for the bad stuff, too. So we get angry at God, or we decide that God doesn’t exist at all. As soon as we have a negative Jewish experience, we decide that Judaism isn’t worth our time any more—because it’s just supposed to be joyous. We never learned how to connect Judaism to fear or sadness or anger, and so the core of our Jewish identities, those carefully curated joyful experiences that make up our Jewish identities fall, one by one by one.

The problem with relying solely on joy is that Judaism is not solely joyful. Eventually, our children discover the rest of Judaism. At some point, they learn about the persecution, the pogroms, the Holocaust. Eventually, someone they love dies, and there is no light, joyful, easy answer to the question of why. There comes a day when they turn the page and read the rest of the story, and they discover that the binding of Isaac is a lot more complicated than it seemed, and that Sarah’s love for the son of her old age led her to act with many more emotions than just joy. Judaism, even when it is based in joy, is ultimately about everything else. Our lives are not simply joyful, and Judaism gives us—if we let it—a way to deal with all the other emotions swirling around us and through us: sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and more.

Turning back to this morning’s Torah portion, we can imagine Sarah’s joy at getting pregnant after decades and decades of trying, but we can also consider what else might be in her head. Decades of infertility might have left her angry at God for giving so many other women, including her own maid, the one thing she couldn’t have. She might be terrified to be pregnant at 90—in our own modern time, with the medicine we have, we have a definition of “advanced maternal age,” and Sarah is way, way beyond that line. She might be sad, thinking back on all of the years without a child, on all the years she spent hoping and praying. She might be afraid, afraid of something going wrong, about how much life she’d have left with Isaac, about what could happen to him, to her, to Abraham, about his relationship with Ishmael and his position in the family. And yet, for all these reasons, for all these emotions, this story rings true for so many women throughout time. Pregnancy and a new baby are joyful, but they are so much more than joy, especially if the journey to get there has been a long and winding one. Sarah gives us a model—sometimes, a model of what not to do—as we continue on in this story and see almost no joy. Instead, we see her fear, her sadness and anger, her disgust as she watches her little son play with his half-brother Ishmael, 13 years his senior. Sarah worries about Ishmael usurping what she sees as Isaac’s place in the family, about how they might grow up together, about her own relationship with Hagar. We see the Torah acknowledge these complicated emotions, and perhaps we are comforted to know that we are not alone in feeling them. We read them on Rosh Hashanah, and they remind us that it’s okay to be sad sometimes, to be disgusted or fearful, or even to be angry—at God, at people, at situations.

Some in this room are still waiting for God to remember them, and perhaps some are hoping that God will forget. This story reminds us that we don’t always get happy endings. Isaac and Ishmael, so joyfully playing together for one sentence in their youth, are torn apart by their feuding mothers and reunite only at their shared father’s funeral, a time when there is no doubt about the many emotions they were feeling.

As our young children get older and experience more than just the joy of Judaism, they don’t always know how to handle it. They learn about the Holocaust, and perhaps never receive a satisfactory answer to how God allowed it to happen. They are understandably disgusted and angry, perhaps at God, perhaps at the teachers who led them to believe that Judaism is only joyful, perhaps at Judaism as a whole, for not being what they thought it was. They experience the death of a loved one and they are sad—and they don’t know the Jewish rituals for dealing with sad events, because we focus so much on joy. They experience the paralyzing fear of performance as they prepare for Bar/Bat Mitzvah, and they don’t know that there is endless Jewish wisdom and advice on responding to fear. Instead, they only realize that Judaism has made them fearful, not joyful, and they turn away. By teaching only joy, we prevent kids from experiencing all that Judaism has to offer.

But Judaism does respond to sadness, disgust, anger, and fear. Jews couldn’t have made it through this much history, through our history—far from a joyous one—without knowing how to respond to all of these emotions. Judaism has customs that show us how to respond to different emotions. Think about the rituals surrounding the death of a loved one. Each one is intended to address our emotions, and numerous studies have shown that the Jewish mourning process: a burial soon after death, seven days of intense mourning, 30 days of less intense mourning but still not back to normal, parallel the stages of grief that modern psychology has defined. We need that time of shiva to acknowledge our sadness, to wallow in that pain, to ask our questions in anger, to be surrounded by other people who share that pain with us. When we cut it short—determining that we’re okay now, after a couple of days, going back to work and pretending everything is fine, we shortchange those difficult emotions that Judaism gives us a structure to explore.

Judaism even gives us a framework for anger at God. Consider Abraham’s debate with God about destroying Sodom and Gemorrah, where Abraham argues with God about how many righteous people might be residing there, people who shouldn’t be killed. Consider Moses arguing with God about destroying the Israelites in the wilderness after we built the golden calf. These stories tell us not only that it’s okay to disagree with God and argue about the way of the world—but also that God gets angry, too. Yes, God is slow to anger and ready to forgive—but God does get angry, and that makes even our anger God-like. God is upset, all too often, by the children of Israel—even God gets sad. God worries about the children of Israel—even God gets fearful. And so we know that Judaism does not have to be all joy all the time. Even God feels those other emotions, and so we, in our pain, are still in God’s image.

Even while emotions we think of as negative: sadness, fear, disgust, anger, are part of Judaism, there is no denying that joy is there as well. Our most powerful experiences of Judaism come from combining joy and not-joy. Excluding either category of emotions from Judaism restricts us and keeps us from fully experiencing it.

When talking to someone in the weeks after a loved one’s death, they are often surprised at the shiva experience. It’s sad, to be sure, because a loved one is so obviously missing and not coming back. But so many people are surprised at the joy that shiva can bring, the joy of spending time with family who lives far away, and the joy of sharing stories that had been all but forgotten just weeks before. It seems to me that people are often unexpectedly moved by shiva because they expect it to be just sad, or sad and angry, and they are taken aback by the joy that creeps through. Those who are not mourners themselves, but attend shiva at a friend’s home, often speak of how meaningful it is to sit with a friend in need, or to listen to them reminisce. Whether as a mourner or a friend, shiva can become a transformative Jewish experience—a core part of one’s Jewish self, even—precisely because it is a time when we access so many of our emotions from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Even at a Jewish wedding, one of the most joyous events there is, our joy is tempered by sadness. At the end of the ceremony, the couple breaks a glass. There are about a dozen different explanations as to why, but the most common are to remind all present that even in the wake of the extreme joy of a wedding, we keep in mind the destruction of the ancient Temple, or the incompleteness of our world, or another less than happy thought. Even our pure joy of joining two people together in love is somewhat lessened by the sadness of the world around us.

At the Passover seder, we go from the sadness and anger of slavery to the joy of freedom, telling the story each year as if we ourselves were there. And when we get to the ten plagues, we fill our cups of wine or grape juice—our cups of joy—and we spill some out for each plague. After all, our cups of joy cannot be full, the haggadah tells us, when others are suffering. This ritual, along with stepping on a glass at the end of a wedding, is probably one of the most-observed Jewish traditions there is, and one of the most meaningful, as it combines joy and sadness and touches us deeply.

There has been a lot of research over the years about Jewish summer camps and Israel trips and how transformative they can be. These immersive experiences have long been thought to be so foundational because they allow campers to really live Judaism in so many ways, to be immersed in a purely Jewish culture, to be surrounded by so many Jewish peers. I suspect it’s also because of the emotions. Going to Jewish summer camp for even just a couple of weeks almost guarantees that there will be times when children are sad, times when they are angry, times when they are fearful, and many, many times of joy—and every one of those emotions is in a Jewish context. For some, it may be the first time that Judaism, even in an indirect way, has made them sad, or challenged them to think and work through their anger. And so they come home changed.

This past summer at OSRUI, I worked with campers entering 4th through 7th grade, and we talked about the stories of Genesis. We talked about bullying and how we treat others, explaining the story of Isaac and Ishmael. We talked about belonging and welcoming the stranger—and we had one hundred preteens admitting that there were times that they had been left out—and times when they had excluded someone else. We talked about how our biblical ancestors dealt with those situations and those emotions, and what we could learn from them. And we sat with these campers at meals and between activities, and we laughed about their adventures, cried about their struggles, and listened to their fears. And we watched 100 preteens learn that Judaism is there for them no matter what emotions they face, and that Judaism has a model for them, no matter what they are feeling at the time. We watched them grow and make connections and transform their Judaism—in two weeks. Jewish overnight camp is transformative, because it gives kids of all ages access to all of their emotions in a Jewish context, a powerful experience that otherwise can take a lifetime to discover.

In Inside Out, Riley’s emotions learn that every one of them has power; Joy does not have to be in charge all the time. Some believe that Sadness is truly the hero of the story, although I believe that it is the emotional teamwork that is the star. If we turn our Judaism inside out, we see that we often try to let Joy lead us through our Jewish life as well—but that as soon as joy hits a speed bump, we’re not sure what to do, and too many turn away for all but the most extreme life experiences. But Judaism, like Riley’s life, is about more than Joy, and it is not always joyful. Judaism offers us the most when we access it with our whole selves, with all of our emotions.

This morning, as we read the story of God remembering Sarah, we exult with Sarah and Abraham as they celebrate the arrival of their long-awaited child Isaac. But we also wallow with them as we remember their lifelong struggle before he arrived, we fear with them about the unknown, and we rant with them about all they have been through in their lives. We celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the world, soaring with joy at the start of another year, and yet at this time of year, we also acknowledge those who didn’t make it to these High Holy Days. We fear who might be missing by next year. We rant about some of what has transpired in the year that has ended, and we are disgusted at the thought of what might yet come, especially in an election year.

And through it all, we remember that Judaism has been here before, and it remains here through everything. Judaism is here when we celebrate the joys of life, and it is here when we have questions, frustrations, and sadness. May we let Judaism seep into all the parts of our lives, turning to Judaism when we are happy, but refusing to turn away when we are not. May we face the challenges head on, allowing ourselves to question and take in our teachings, to confront as well as get comfortable with our stories. May we experience all of Judaism and come to know that our tradition is there for all the times—and emotions—of our lives.

Sat, February 24 2024 15 Adar I 5784