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When You Just Don’t Feel Joyful on Simchat Torah, Remember...

When You Just Don’t Feel Joyful on Simchat Torah, Remember...

Cluster of balloons with frowning faces and one with a smiley face

The Torah commands us to by joyful on our festivals (Deut. 16:14), which often comes easy for us on festive holidays such as Shabbat, Purim, and especially Simchat Torah – the holiday commemorating the start of our Torah-reading cycle, which we celebrate by singing, dancing, and carrying our Torah scrolls.

This makes sense. We’ve made it through the new year, cleansed ourselves of last year’s missteps, dwelled in our sukkot, and are now ready to start this year’s Torah cycle. We have lots to celebrate!

And yet, every day the world around us proves to us that we also have lots to mourn.

With every seemingly worse piece of bad news littering our social media feeds and our news cycles and in the streets right before our very eyes, it’s fair to wonder: What if we simply can’t be happy, even when we’re commanded to? What if you just don’t feel like dancing?

Many of the Torah’s commandments are not presented simply as laws but as compulsions: God compels us to follow these laws to bring us closer to God, to each other, and to ourselves. As such, the mitzvah (commandment) to rejoice on Simchat Torah might be seen less as God ordering us, “Just get over your sadness and be happy!” and instead reframed as God asking us, “What is there to be happy about?”

For many of us, the calamities facing our world touch us deeply, and that can make it difficult to set aside serious concerns, even for a few hours of dancing and singing. Plus, we may also still be dealing with the after-effects of Yom Kippur, our acts of t’shuvah (repentance) leaving us a little bruised.

So many of us spend our time and effort fighting systemic racism, xenophobia, and other injustices, both in our Jewish communities and in the world at large. We put in the work to confront our own implicit biases and check our blind spots and sit in our discomfort, all of which can hurt at times. And while this work is beautiful and necessary and ultimately healing, hardly any of it can be considered “joyful.”

Simchat Torah, however, beckons us to take the “Yes, and…” approach so popular in improv comedy.

This Jewish festival serves not to tell us to ignore our work or the injustices that occur on a daily basis, but to nudge us to also show gratitude for what is good and right in our world – to see the entirety of every moment we’re blessed to be alive, both the negative and the positive.

Simchat Torah compels us to be thankful for our family, our friends, our sacred partners in the work of tikkun olam (healing the world). And Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) tells us to “Turn the Torah, and turn it again, for everything you want to know is found within it.” (Avot 5:22) 

Celebrating the Torah cycle being renewed once more means that even when we think we’ve seen every possible approach to solving our problems, there is always so much more to explore and unearth.

It also reminds us of the empowering beauty of perspective. Those of us who were beginners last year are much more confident and knowledgeable about so many things this year – the work of audacious hospitality included.

Simchat Torah tells us, “Give yourself permission to be happy; you deserve it.”

As we start our Torah cycle over again once more – as we turn it over to gather newer, deeper insight and ask the theological questions that need to be asked – let us also ask ourselves, “What is there to be happy about?”  

Despite how things may seem some days, the answer is: a lot.

Feeling stressed about the state of the world? Check out "3 Jewish Reminders When the World Seems Overwhelming."

Chris Harrison is the writer and editor for Audacious Hospitality at the Union for Reform Judaism and a fellow in the 2018 JewV’Nation Fellowship’s Jews of Color Leadership Cohort. A graduate of Miami University in Oxford, OH, he holds a degree in creative writing and film studies. He grew up at Payne Chapel A.M.E. Church in Hamilton, OH, and converted to Judaism at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Named one of The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36,” Chris is passionate about Jewish studies, cinema, health and fitness, and bisexual advocacy in the LGBTQ+ community.

Chris Harrison
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