Midsommar Most Heat Moon
Danced the hora last night, mixing up my feet as I normally do while dancing, but enjoying myself anyway. Joy, it turns out, is a character trait in mussar. “It’s a mitzvah to be happy.” Rabbi Nachman. Judaism constantly challenges my Midwestern protestant ethos, not primarily intellectually, but emotionally. Last night was a good example.
I’d spent the day feeling punk, stomach a bit upset, tired, exercise was hard. Told Kate, “I feel like I can’t my motor started.” Didn’t really want to go to this once a month mussar havurah (fellowship), but I’d decided to make gazpacho for the meal and had finished it. So I went, pretty sure I’d feel better if I did. Which, if you think about it, is an interesting sign.
When we got to Beth Evergreen, it was a small group, seven. Becky was new and Lila, a friendly pug/boxer mix, Rabbi Jamie’s dog, strained at a yellow leash tied to a picnic table on the patio. Tara, the cantor/director of education, Rabbi Jamie, Judy, the social action chair, Mitch, a long haired man in his early 50s, Kate and me made up the rest.
We ate our meal together outside, all at one picnic table. Tara’s Hebrew school students had decorated it and it was colorful underneath our paper plates and plastic bowls. The evening was a perfect combination of cool warmth and low humidity. The grandmother ponderosa stood tall, lightning scarred against the blue black sky. Bergen mountain had already obscured the sun which still lit up the clouds from its hiding place.
While I ate my own soup, not feeling hungry since my dis-ease earlier, Rabbi Jamie got us started on the evening’s conversation, suggesting we focus on hope and joy in the present.
“When I read that tonight was about joy, I first thought about dogs. How unrestrained they are and how in the moment with their feelings.” Lila, I said, had greeted me fondly, showering me with kisses, a stranger. I like that about dogs.
We all laughed when Rabbi Jamie asked if I hoped (another middot, character trait, clustered with joy) to be able to greet strangers the same way. “Well, not by kissing them on the lips or licking them.” I was thinking, but yes, I hope I can add that level of uncalculated joy to my meetings with others.
Becky said she had problems with hope, naming the carelessness of humans and the destructive presence we are on the earth. “I think about how we might destroy ourselves, but after some time, the planet will be fine. That makes me feel better, oddly,” she said. Rabbi Jamie mentioned then something I’ve heard him voice before, a Talmudic argument over whether it would have been better if humans had not been created. Yes, the rabbis decided, it would have been better. But, since we are here, what will we do?
Judaism has that sort of no nonsense approach to heavy existential issues. Yes, we’ll die. So the question is, how will you live; not the understandable response, OMG, I’m gonna die!
In the remaining discussion it became clear to me that Judaism has joy at its core, an embrace of life even in the midst of struggles and despair, an embrace of life in community, with known others. Joy, one quote offered for the evening suggested, comes from deep connection.
This is so qualitatively different from Presbyterianism. When Rabbi Jamie led us in song, then got us up to dance, I tried to imagine the same thing happening during a Presbytery meeting. Nope. Wouldn’t happen. It’s a cultural difference of substantial proportion.
I want to like this, I may even need to like it, but it’s hard. Being hesitant, reserved, especially physically, came with my Midwest protestant raising, reinforced by my Germanic father and the often dysfunctional nature of my mother’s extended family.
Still don’t want to be a Jew, but these challenges, to experience deep joy and hope rooted in community, are good for me. Necessary, even. When we came home through the darkening June night, driving up Black Mountain Drive, I no longer felt dis-eased. An odd sense of hopefulness had crept in. Maybe a bit of joy.