This morning, just two days after I launched this blog about Jewish joy, was Rosh Chodesh Adar Aleph, the first day of the first month of Adar. (Did you know that we have two months of Adar this year? Long story.)
According to a rabbinic saying in the Talmud (B. Ta'anit 29a), "Mishenichnas Adar marbin besim'cha," "When Adar enters, joy increases." The timing, it seems, could not be better for starting a conversation about joy. Sometimes things just work out that way.
During services this morning, I talked about my First Post and the idea that Judaism needs to rediscover its joy in order to remain relevant and vital to the Jews of the 21st century. We had a great discussion and one of my brilliant congregants (the only kind I have) raised a really good point.
She agreed, absolutely, that the lack of joy in so many congregations keeps a lot of Jews away from Judaism, and that a more joyful experience would attract many Jews who have been disaffected. However, she also said that the low synagogue affiliation rates also are due to a lack of a feeling of obligation to the Jewish community.
In previous generations, many Jews went to synagogue (joyful or not—mostly not) because they felt a sense of obligation. They knew that the community needed them and that, perhaps, someday they would need the community. That sense of mutual responsibility was a glue that kept the Jewish community together for a long time. Sadly, it seems to be on the wane.
And that got me thinking. Which is the more significant factor? Which would do a better job of getting more Jews involved in Jewish community? Making the experience of Jewish community involvement more joyful, or heightening the awareness of that the Jewish community depends upon the involvement of each individual?
In the end, I don't think there really is a dichotomy. You don't have to choose one or the other. In fact, I think the decline in a sense of obligation is related to the lack of joy. I believe that a more joyful Judaism would lead to a greater sense of obligation.
Let me explain that, because I think it is a point that goes against the way that most Americans think about obligations. In some way, most of us have to unlearn the way we were taught to think about obligation by secular society.
In American culture, obligations are usually thought of as onerous—something you have to do that, given your druthers, you would rather not do. Paying taxes and showing up for jury duty are civic obligations that most Americans just put up with. They are seen as "the price we pay" for our freedoms. Very few Americans think of these duties as being, in any way, joyful.
However, in Jewish thought, a chiuv, an obligation, is not generally regarded negatively. A chiuv—whether it is for helping the poor or for lighting Shabbat candles—is an opportunity for affirmation and connecting. Our obligations are the things that bind us to one another and to God. This is why, in Jewish thought, obligations usually are equated with commitments. By fulfilling our obligations, we demonstrate our loyalty to our bedrock beliefs and bind ourselves more securely to family, community, and to our ultimate values and ideals. Obligation is seen as a joyful experience.
The problem is, most American Jews are not living in that understanding of what a chiuv is all about. Ask any synagogue treasurer to recount the times that congregation members have joyfully presented their dues checks, and you will learn that we don't have many Jews who feel a sense of elation about their obligations to the Jewish community.
But we do have a few. There are those wonderful souls in almost every congregation who do get it—who see their contribution to the community as a joyful obligation. Who are those people? For the most part, they are the people who are most involved in the community, who delight in seeing it thrive, and who experience joy when they come. These people teach us that the best way to create a sense of obligation to the Jewish community among today's Jews is to make sure that they have lots of joyful experiences whenever they participate in the Jewish community.
On the first day of Adar this year, the time of increasing joy, we read the Torah portion that tells how Moses accepted donations for the building of the mishkan (the portable tabernacle the Israelites carried through the desert). Moses took gifts from "all whose hearts so moved them"—"kol ish asher yidveinu libo" (Exodus 25:2).
What a perfect lesson for the day on which Adar enters and joy increases. We find our greatest joy in fulfilling our obligation to support one another and to treat each other with open hearts.