Rabbi Stephen’s D’var Torah

Rosh Hashanah 1, Sept. 30, 2019

Awakening through Joy – Rabbi Stephen Slater

We read a stirring and beautiful Haftarah today. Before we read it, I asked you to look for the answer to this question: What was the source of Hannah’s joy? (108-110)

Hannah was stuck in a bad situation. She loved the man she was married to, but she could not provide him with children. And to make matters worse, his second wife, Peninah, tormented her about it. As a result, she was becoming bitter.

The text describes her as despairing, bitter of spirit. It was that bad. She felt she couldn’t pray and reached the point where she was beyond despair.

The Hebrew is repetitive, called the infinitive absolute. It means crying and ובכה תבכה.

Crying more, because it is an absolute sort of crying that comes from total loss.

And her poor husband doesn’t get it. He asks “But don’t I make you happy? Doesn’t my love replace your need for this child?” No, it doesn’t. It is a unique kind of love. No offense to Elkanah, but his love is not the point.

But then notice her joy.

עלץ לבי בשם – ‘My heart leaps because of, or about Adonai!’

רחב פי על אויבי – Literally ‘My mouth is widened before my enemies.’ Imagine Channah, with a broad smile on her face, whatever her rival wife says. She knows that she is OK.

כי שמחתי בישועתך – ‘I rejoice in your salvation!’ This is the word used for national salvation. Like the splitting of the Red Sea. It’s a word used for a miracle. And it indicates that she believes God has just given her a gift of a son by way of miracle.

Joy can lead to a spiritual awakening. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by a joyful experience that you had to reconsider the meaning and direction of your life? That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

The most important thing I learned from my teacher Art Green, was “In order to serve God well, you must start with joy.” עבדו את השם בשמחה Ivdu et Hashem beSimkha. Serve God with gladness, i.e. through joy! Understanding Judaism starts with Joy.

The ability to be a blessing to another depends on joy. Abraham was told that he would be a blessing to every family of the earth. Yet he was not told how he would be a blessing. Well, what can bless every family, is taking the time to be with each other, and enjoy the blessing of their presence. This gift is the weekly practice of Shabbat. And the ability to give a gift to the coming generation, depends on our joy.

I hear a lot of anxiety from certain sectors about the next generation of Jews. I have been part of strategic discussions about how to attract the new generation to engage with Jewish life – here in Birmingham, on College campuses, the LJCC, or elsewhere. You name it, it is the question in organizational Jewish life. The answer is quite simple. Begin with joy. Not gimmicks. Not financial incentives. Just genuine joy.

That leads me to a bigger point. You must discover the source of your joy in Judaism. It will not be the same for everyone. I can lead a horse to water, but I cannot make it drink. You need to identify your source of joy. This year we will be hosting some exciting adult education opportunities. These are some of the most important opportunities that you can take hold of. Because this year, 5780, is a year to Awaken to a Joyful Judaism.

Notice Hannah is not gloating about everything that she has got. She is not saying, Nah nah nah nah, and saying to her rival, check out how many children I have! Take that! This is not trash talk. Instead it is about the joy that comes from knowing that God is with her. God cares for her. That is a fundamentally different posture in life.

You see, she had believed what her rival wife told her. When Peninah, told her, “Look, God has closed up your womb.” She believed her. She believed that God was afflicting her. This was what bothered her so much. The idea that God had chosen to afflict her, to make her life unbearable by making it impossible to bear a son.

This is why her song of rejoicing is all about God. She is delighted because God, the one who gives life, and brings death, has chosen to give her a son. She is able to bring life into the world. That is one of the most profound gifts we ever receive! She attributes it all to God. If you read her song of praise on page 110, she is in love with God, because God has made her a mother. She now understands that what her rival had been telling her, was a lie about God. God had always wanted her to be happy!

And this morning, I want to tell you that God wants you to be happy. We sing it three times a day here. “Happy, Happy are those who dwell in your house” That is Ashrei, the prayer with which we begin morning, afternoon and evening prayers, declares, “Happy, Happy are those who dwell in this house of prayer.”

I believe that some here do not yet know how happy God wants them to be. Many of us have given up on ourselves. We tell ourselves. No, that’s not for me. I’ll make do with what I have.

No! That’s not right. God wants you to be unbelievably happy. Now it may not take the shape that you may currently believe it will. Happiness is not the same as driving a nice car, having the world’s most amazing professional career, living in an immaculate house, or having perfectly behaved children. That is not the source of happiness. The only thing that can carry the burden of our life long longing for happiness, is God. God is the only one who will again and again make us happy. That is why we gather so often for prayer. That is what we experience in the deep silences of prayer, contact with God.

What you can Do to Awaken to Joy

You might be thinking, that’s nice Rabbi, but very theoretical. I actually want to make it incredibly practical. I don’t want you to leave here thinking “nice sermon.” I want you to think, I need to change my mind about a BIG Idea, and I have two very concrete areas of life in which to do them.

Today, on Rosh Hashannah, I want you to consider your happiness. Am I as happy as I could be? Can I believe that God wants me to be happy? Channah was faced with the same question. And what exploded in this psalm of happiness, was the joy that God wanted her to be happy. God wants you to be happy.

Tachlis! We’re Jews, so we get real practical. What regular practices will bring me close to the happiness that God wants for me?

I have two for you today:

A) Joy on Shabbat

First, use some creativity. Ask yourself, “How can I bring more joy into my family’s life this Shabbat?” Should we avoid going out for dinner, because you know what, it’s a public space and we can’t say Kiddush; or that bill always puts me in a bad mood? Should we turn off the TV, because you actually hate having to put up with the sound dominating your living room every Saturday? Do I really just want to get a babysitter and go for a walk during sunset or sunrise with my spouse? Do I wish that I got to drink good coffee on Shabbas morning, say something like cold brew, and fairly traded, sitting around with friends I don’t get to see all week? 🙂 Then make it happen! Go make Shabbat the day of your dreams a reality. Make it a day of Joy. The Sages taught that Shabbat is a day of Oneg, delight. They taught that if something especially good comes to you during the week, then you should save it, so that you can have it to eat or drink on Shabbat.

We preachers have gotten a reputation for telling people to mistrust your desire for doing what makes you happy. I just want to clarify. Joy is in fact the goal. It is just that not everything that you think will make you happy, actually will. People are easily mistaken. The reliable source of joy is God. All of our longings for happiness, are truly longings for God.

And joy is what Rosh Hashanah is all about. This year I want to invite you to awaken to joy. That’s why we gather today with family and serve an extravagant meal. That is why we rejoice to sing about God’s kingship, because on this day, it is all about Joy. And that day, when God is king through all of the world, will be the most joyful of all.

B) Blessing Our Children

Secondly, perhaps the thing that will bring us the greatest joy is blessing our children. When we give them something that makes them happy, we feel a deep surge of happiness inside. You may have spent hours imagining and finding the perfect gift for one of your children or grandchildren. But I want to suggest that there is something deeper that you can give these little bitty gems. If you share a sacred moment with your child or grandchild, you have given them something priceless. Let that sacred moment be one of you blessing your child or grandchildren.

Something that we have begun doing now that our children understand what we’re saying, is to tell them something that we noticed about what they did that surprised or impressed us during the week. The exercise causes us to think about them. It prompts us to see them in a fuller way. And like Jacob, blessing his children, we speak into their still forming consciousness, what we see and love about them. And we pray that it will grow, so that they become who they are meant to be.

So let me ask you this Rosh Hashanah, to make time to bless your children and grandchildren each Friday night this year. It may take a lot of preparation, but it is all worth it. This moment of being together, of hearing each other, of seeing each other, and of blessing each other, is a slice of heaven on the earth.

This year, may God bless us each with the faith to believe that God made us for joy.

May God bless us with the imagination to imagine a day of delights even more joyful than we have yet known.

May God bless us with the regular practice of gathering with family on Shabbat to bless our children, and to be blessed with them.

Shanah Tovah!



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