Joy is a Radical Act

KI TAVO

A REFLECTION BY CHAPLAIN BENJAMIN FREED, STUDENT, THE RABBINICAL SCHOOL OF JTS (CLASS OF 2021), GLADSTEIN FELLOW

“Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.”
—Rebecca Makkai, The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

A few weeks ago, my fiancée and I re-watched the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, where anthropomorphized emotions work together and compete to control the feelings and actions of an 11-year-old named Riley. One of the primary lessons is that unchecked “Joy” cannot by itself bring true happiness or properly prepare us for handling life’s more difficult moments. Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust all play a role in making us who we are, and we ignore those emotions at our own risk. As someone who strongly identifies with Amy Poehler’s peppy and unrelentingly optimistic “Joy” character, this message is both sobering and powerful.

However, after re-watching the movie in 2020, I was forced to wonder if our collective pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. The last six months of uncertainty and fear have been so devastating that even as a naturally jubilant person I am hesitant to speak out on behalf of joy. The challenges we face today are both so great and so evident that we can recite them by rote—every article, sermon, and conversation is framed by a litany of disasters. I have noticed that even when feelings of joy do come, they are often accompanied by guilt. But it is not in spite of everything happening around us that I speak of joy this week; it is because of it.

Twice in this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, (weekly reading) we are commanded to be joyful: we are instructed to be joyful in our bringing of the first fruits along with the Levite and the Stranger (Deut. 26:11) and we are to also be joyful after offering up—and eating—sacrifices of well-being (Deut. 27:7).

These instances of joy are tied to specific actions, and the Sages of the Talmud use these verses to establish that joy is experienced when singing (BT Arakhin 11a) or when eating meat and drinking wine (BT Pesahim 109a).

Joy appears for a third time in our parashah in the midst of the tokhehah, a long collection of curses meant for those who do not obey God’s command:

Because you would not serve your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve—in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything—the enemies whom God will let loose against you. God will put an iron yoke upon your neck until God has wiped you out. (Deut. 28:47)

Here the expectation of joy is not tied to a specific action or a specific time. We are warned that if we fail to be exuberant when serving God, calamity will befall us. Tucked into the middle of one of the most difficult passages in the Torah is a huge and timely blessing, the necessity of joy in our daily lives.

The lesson here, just like in Inside Out, is that one emotion cannot be compartmentalized and only experienced when we feel it is warranted. Even as we grieve for friends and loved ones lost to COVID-19, fight for justice for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Americans, and work to save our environment from those who would destroy it, there must be room for joy in our lives as well.

Yehudah Amichai appreciated the impossibility of compartmentalizing and separating our joy from our pain. In his poem “A Man in His Life,” Amichai writes:

“Kohelet was wrong about this [that there is a time for every purpose].
A human must hate and love at the same moment,
To cry and laugh with the same eyes.”

As a staggering 40 percent of US adults surveyed by the CDC in June reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse, it is critical that we tap into Judaism’s directives for infusing our lives with joy. We must utilize the tools at our disposal to allow our crying eyes a chance to laugh.

Thankfully, we are entering a time of year when our tradition places an added emphasis on joy and happiness. In the next month we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot—respectively, the birthday of the world, a day of forgiveness and renewal, and the holiday when we are supposed to be אך שמח, entirely happy.

While it is true that these holidays ask us to tie our joy to the calendar, our tradition also recognizes that one cannot set a timer and say “this will be my joyful moment.” These holidays ask something of us that is more difficult: we must actively set the stage for joy and allow ourselves to revel in it if and when it arrives. We cannot force joy, but we can beckon it.

Our Sages prescribe certain things to help bring joy: eating meat, drinking wine, singing songs, and Torah study were all ways various rabbis brought joy into their lives. During the coming holidays we traditionally dress in white, eat meals with guests, engage in small construction projects, and experience long periods of prayer and quiet contemplation. Hopefully one of those practices sounds compelling to you and has the potential to spark your joy.

Beckoning to joy can also require assistance. For those struggling with their mental health or with substance abuse, setting the stage for joy can include a call to a mental health professional.

In Inside Out, Joy has to learn to step back and make space for Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. As the latter emotions take hold of our national psyche, let us remember the words of Psalm 30: “One may lie down weeping at nightfall; but joy comes in the morning.” Let us collectively embrace the radical Jewish call to set a spot at the table for Joy, and to welcome her with open arms.

Mountain Climbers

by Chaplain Resident, Brigette Kemink

Last September a group of four entered the buildings of Michigan Medicine with the desire to bring comfort, care, companionship, and peace to the patients, families, caregivers, and staff. Now, they have only a few days left of their journey as Chaplain Residents of Michigan Medicine’s CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) Program led by Rev. Tony Marshall, Certified CPE Educator. These individuals came with the hope that their presence would offer a sense of calm and security. Not only would these four be doing the practical work of supporting patients, families, caregivers, and staff, they would engage in an intensive study program aimed at further developing their personal theology, gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, refine skills to provide care to those with or without a religious tradition, grow their spiritual counseling, and explore new ways of offering care. All of this is done to prepare these individuals to become Board Certified Chaplains, experts in their field, and an honor that comes at the approval of their peers. In any given year, this is a daunting and intensive process, but as we know, this was no ordinary year at Michigan Medicine or in the world.

Father Joshua Genig, Reverend Brigette Kemink, Reverend Brooke Pickrell, and Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg started this journey knowing it would be intense, but could have never predicted the upheaval of COVID-19. While other programs were shutting down and sending residents on hiatus, delaying their ability to complete requirements for the certification process,  the Department of Spiritual Care at Michigan Medicine, led by Rev. Christina Wright, PhD, took this opportunity to encourage the residents to engage with patients in new and different ways. 

Living and working through a pandemic isn’t usually found on a bucket list, but neither is cancer, heart attacks, strokes, autoimmune diseases, car accidents…the list can go on. 

A once bustling hospital of families, friends, and caregivers went nearly silent with only a few people coming and going with strict visitor policies in place. Programs designed to ease the stress and anxiety of being hospitalized were halted. Those in the dying process were unable to have their community around them and this pain was felt not only by the patients and family members, but the staff as well. 

Noone wants to experience death this way. 

People needed care more than ever. 

In person visits were replaced with telephone calls to patients, sisters, brothers, moms, dads, daughters, sons, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, and partners. Questions about God, the Divine, or a Higher Being, became more prevalent. The occasional, but not unexpected question of “Why did this happen to me?” became commonplace, begging to be answered. So, in their way, in their collective understanding of all people being deserving of love, compassion, care, and support, the residents explored new ways of offering care. 

They coordinated family meetings via zoom

They created this website to offer a source of support when being in person is difficult

They advocated for families

They partnered with social workers, music therapists, and physicians to deliver care

They bared their souls through blog posts, videos, and interviews

They became witnesses to the racial disparity of COVID-19

They used their experience to inspire research

They found ways to offer support to staff as they navigated significant changes and challenges

They grew, they learned, and they cared.

And now they move on with a new perspective, new skills, and facing a future with a new confidence having climbed mountains they never saw on their path. 

Certainly, this is how life goes. 

One minute we are walking quietly along with our companions and then we encounter an obstacle. The obstacle does not matter. What matters is how we respond. There will always be days, moments, and times when we don’t want to deal with the obstacle. There will be moments when we’d rather turn around and go back to walking the quiet way. There will be days when we sit down at the face of this new path and feel overwhelmed, burdened, and defeated, but again, this is how life goes. There are no promises of a carefree, joyous filled, obstacle free life.

But in these difficult, trying, and stressful moments, these residents picked up their compass, their faith in God, and kept going. They drew on the strength of others to help them climb mountains, making sure there are people all around to help them. They tightened their rope. They checked their gear and made sure the connections were secure. Then, they stepped out in faith. They were never quite sure where their foot will land, but one thing they knew for sure was that God was with them each step of the way, leading them, climbing with them, and creating a path. Whomever they encounter on this climb is part of the divine process and this trust, this faith, is what encourages them to keep moving on, reaching up, settling in, and taking deep breaths to be in painful, gut-wrenching experiences, to celebrate joyous moments, and offer the companionship of a person of faith.

Thank you residents. Thank you, Joshua, Brigette, Brooke & Benyamin. You have laid the foundation for good work to continue. You have made an impact in places that you don’t even realize and your experiences at Michigan Medicine will never leave you. Michigan Medicine will forever be changed because of your good work and so will you. 

Well done, good and faithful servant.

Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg, Reverend Brooke Pickrell, Reverend Tony Marshall, Father Joshua Genig, Reverend Brigette Kemink – gathered together for a final picture during the COVID-19 pandemic

Lost and Found

Audio to Lost & Found by Chaplain Imam Kamau Ayubbi

By Chaplain Imam Kamau Ayubbi

Below is a transcript of the above recording. You may read it on your own or read along to the recording or simply listen.

On grace and being lost and found. On grace and being lost and found…..

At some point in life, we all experience a sense of loss. Maybe it might be the loss of a loved one, the loss of what’s normal, the loss of a job. And being lost can throw us into a state of confusion, panic, challenge…but it also can put us on a search. It can put us into a state of seeking out reasons, answers….asking questions.

Sometimes we say why? Sometimes we say, why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to us? With time we may gain enough need or desire for peace, for solutions, that we, that the natures of our questions change. We may say what is the wisdom in this? What do I need to learn in this? What can I find in this? How do I find an aspect of myself that I need to? How do I find my higher self? How do I find compassion in life? Safety? Peace? Security? Clarity?

So, this can happen on a large scale. This can happen on a small scale, on a daily scale. Daily bewilderment. Where it becomes the importance of grace. That grace is something to personally connect with, a sense of acceptance. Connectedness. Kindness. Togetherness. Openness to your experience. That divine gift of space to find your orientation to that very thing…which is grace.

Grace. Compassion. These are ongoing, unfolding, revealing elements that we each can find our unique orientation to. So, my invitation to you is to establish or recognize, through intention, through attention, find your connection to grace. Find your connection to compassion. Taste it. Reveal in it. Increase in it. Explore it. Familiarize yourself with it.

And as you familiarize yourself with it, affirm it. Walk with it. Live with it. Create with it. Write down what it may mean. Write down how it shows up. Share and become that presence or become and share that presence. That allows all of these other beautiful realizations to come through. Beautiful findings. Being lost and found in grace is a part of the human condition that each and every one of us has the possibility of finding and connecting with and moving through and gaining confidence from.

We wish you well. Continue your journey with peace. Blessings and grace. So be it. Ameen.