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How Does Your Judaism Spark Joy?

How Does Your Judaism Spark Joy?

Young boy facing away from the camera while holding a sparkler in the dark

I might be late to the party, as is want to happen when you've got three kids and a full-time job, but I want to talk about the Marie Kondo "KonMari" movement and that whole "does it spark joy" mantra. I've watched quite a few friends KonMari their houses and lives, and I got to thinking about the concept of joy and what sparks joy in my life - not to mention the amount of excess junk floating around my house that leaves me feeling like I'm drowning most days.

You see, I moved around a lot as an adult. I was never particularly attached to things. The stuff I was most attached to were my words, and those went with me wherever I was because of the magic of the interwebs. I remember losing a hand-scribbled poem I feverishly wrote in the back of a poetry venue in college and freaking out until I could actually locate the flyer (yes, the poem was written on the back of a bright orange flyer for another event). Paper was my enemy, things were my enemy, words were my voice and my power.

So, as I moved from Nebraska to Washington D.C. to Chicago to Connecticut to New Jersey to Denver to Israel, I took very little with me from place to place. I had my clothes, some books, a bit of Judaica, and that was it. I didn't need much. I never needed much. Things were replaceable, and they were just things.

Then I met my husband. Although he didn't have much in the way of stuff, he had a lot of stuff. Does that make sense? I feel like over the past six years we've collectively amassed an immense amount of junk and despite taking a bag or two to Goodwill every other week or so, we still have so much stuff. Is it because we have kids? Is it because we're settled? Why do we have so much stuff?

I'm sitting in the basement of our little house (seriously, our backyard is the same square footage as our whole house), looking around the room, and although I love this couch, I could live without it. Same with the TV and most of the books and the lamps and the other random things laying around. The photos, of course, would stay with me, as would the memory books from my kids' schooldays. I want them to be able to look at them someday and decide how and when to dispense of them.

But if I ask myself, "Do these things spark joy?" that's different than asking if I need or even if I want them, isn't it? And it's definitely different than asking if these things make me happy, right?

According to some definitions, happiness is fleeting, while joy is long-lasting and deeply embedded in the mind, body, and spirit. So, although a quick trip out of state alone without having to worry about crying babies in the middle of the night might make me happy, will it bring me joy?

In Hebrew, there are a number of words that are translated regularly as "joy," including:

  • simcha (שמחה‎): broadly used for happiness, but also for special happy occasions
  • osher (אושר‎): used for a deeper, more lasting happiness (also where we get our son's name, Asher!)
  • gilah (גילה‎): often refers to an ecstatic outburst of joy
  • ditzah (דיצה‎): often translated as a sublime joy
  • sasson (ששון‎): a sudden or unexpected happiness
  • ... and many, many more

Simcha, in particular, is fascinating in the Torah, because it's never experienced alone. Simcha is joy that is shared. In this way, then, happiness is a larger concept while joy is what happens in the moment (contrary to the definition offered above). Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in a discussion of happiness and joy, quoted J.D. Salinger, who once said, "Happiness is a solid, joy is a liquid." And further, Rabbi Sacks says,

"Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to Gd. It comes from a different realm of happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude."

This idea really resonates with me. Rabbi Sacks says that Judaism is an ode to joy, because through all of the ups and downs, tragedies and successes, the Jewish people have always found a way to be joyful, to gather, and to rejoice. Joy is found in the now, in the acceptance and appreciation of this very moment, and it all happens in the pursuit of happiness, I suppose. 

So, in a way, the KonMari approach of asking "Does this spark joy?" makes sense in the moment. It makes you consider the very instance in which you're living. However, if joy discovers you and not the other way around, the method makes no sense.

Looking at my life, and knowing that I don't live in a world based on things, it's easy for me to see what joy there is in my life. People who come and go, experiencing the unexpected, moments that I could never have possibly imagined, those are all of the things that bring me joy, because it's about connections, engaging with words and emotions. It's bigger than things and stuff, it's all about something greater, something larger - and something more important. 

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett is a Torah-observant Jew who has two conversions (Reform and Orthodox) under her belt and considers herself (and thinks all Jews should be) underconstructionist. She's a copywriter, copyeditor, mom to three, wife to an Englishman, and caffeine addict.

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett
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