Serving G-d with Joy

My family and I recently returned from a journey that left me thinking about what I learned there long after the bags were unpacked and the pictures downloaded on to the computer.

Fifteen years ago, before I married my husband, Stephen, I was very active in a funky, Reform shul with a national reputation as a very special place. Indeed, this shul is still alive and vibrant with the kind of joyful energy I have been seeking ever since I left it. Shabbos services are packed, hugs are abundant, the singing is joyous, the Torah study before services is stimulating, and the female Cantor has the voice of an angel. Although generalities are dangerous, most of the congregants seem to be happy, both in synagogue, and outside of it in their daily lives.

During our most recent vacation, we paid a visit to a couple we have not seen in fifteen years, since their wedding day. She was a member of the shul when I was there, and I matched her up with a friend of mine. They fell in love, married, and then we lost touch. She “googled me” and found me a few months ago. They now have three kids and a house and a life together, and they are both still quite active in the same shul I long ago left behind.

Visiting with them flooded me with memories of my former life as a Reform Jew. As I listened to them talk with reverence about how special this shul is, and as I remembered for myself all of my own joyful experiences there, I found myself feeling a twinge of regret that I had to leave it behind. I was happy there. This couple seems happy there. Am I really happier now, as an Orthodox Jew, than when I was immersed in my Reform Jewish path?

This question has plagued me since we returned from our vacation. Very serious, committed Jews now surround me. Their learning, and their allegiance to the Torah continually impress me. I believe we are on the right path, the one designed by Hashem for our family. Are we happy? Does it matter if we are, or are not?

Yes, it matters. We are supposed to serve Hashem with joy. That is what He wants. Certainly, if we expect our children to follow in the derech, we better make sure the path is joyful. It was easy to be happy as a Reform Jew, because when I went to shul, I was not really focused on serving G-d with joy. I thought that is what I was doing. Except that I was driving to synagogue, and eating trafe, and ignoring all of the commandments that didn’t give me personal meaning or joy. In other words, I was serving myself, in the context of my religion. It really had nothing at all to do with serving G-d. It was easier to be happy when I didn’t do anything I didn’t want to do, and when I wasn’t paying yeshiva bills and a NJ mortgage and worried about parnussa all the time. It was easier to be carefree when I really believed that all that G-d wanted from me was to be happy and Jewish, and I could decide what that meant.

Now, I am committed to serving G-d with joy, with the emphasis first on serving G-d. Up till recently, I’m not so sure I was focused enough on the “with joy” part of that journey. So concerned have I been with “getting it right” and teaching my children, much of the journey has been quite serious in nature. Sure, there is the attempt to create joy on Shabbos and the holidays, but there is also the stress of preparing for the holidays and figuring out “how to do it” that has lessened the potential joy I could have felt. And, as so many in this community understand, the challenges of being a BT with non observant family has also cast a shadow at times.

I came back from this vacation with a renewed commitment to put more emphasis on the end of the sentence: “Serve G-d with joy.” I have plenty of scapegoats for missing the mark, whether it is the bills, or the lack of confidence in myself, or missing my family. My husband and I have determined that serving G-d is our obligation, and our opportunity. Now it’s also our obligation and opportunity to figure out how to do so with joy, not just during times of simcha, but every day. I can be happy when my religion and synagogue and practices exist for the sole purpose of entertaining me. Can I also be happy when my focus is on serving my Creator? I would hope that the joy and nachas I find from the observant path is of a different and more profound nature than the self-centered happiness of my previous Reform journey. And if that isn’t so, then I’ve really missed the mark.

I ask you to ask yourselves this same question. “Am I serving G-d with joy today?” If not now, when?

13 comments on “Serving G-d with Joy

  1. I love Rabbi Pliskin’s approach of teaching you to “reframe” your thoughts in a positive, joyful way.

  2. robins,your feeling is right. It’s there as is
    “Trails to Tranquility” another great book.

  3. David, I loved what you said about bitachon. I agree with you 100 percent. By the way, for anyone reading this post, the best book I’ve read of late on this topic of bitachon is “Garden of Emuna”, by Rabbi Arush. I read it every Shabbos to refresh me. I got it online, don’t remember where.

  4. Thank you, my wife and I found this a very insightful and thoughtful piece.

    I think the key to true joy revolves around bitachon, trust in God. If we have bitachon we can realize and internalize the message: “Who is wealthy? He that rejoices in what he has.”

    Bitachon gives us the tranquility that whatever happens is for the best, whatever we have is exactly what we need. And that leads to true joy, rejoicing in what we have.

    Therefore, the way to reach joy in the service of God is through working on our bitachon.

  5. This post is very moving; thank you for it. In my experience, it can be quite challenging for liberal Jews and Jews who become BT to remain friends, and I’m glad to read about a moment of connection with a friend from your old shul, even though that’s not the Jewish path you walk now.

  6. Bob Miller,
    Singing and dancing in circles with hassidim would not drum up any cheery eyed joy.and I don’t play any instruments for them to dance around me either. Circle dancing is not that joy inducing either.
    I do appreciate your joyful suggestions for ecstatic ecstacy and joyful living via dancing and singing with hasidim in circles though.

  7. Analogy:

    Sometimes you dance with your father at a wedding, other times you struggle to shovel a deep snowfall for him. You should do both with joy. Think: he did so much for you, at last an opportunity to do something for him.

  8. Joy can be had through the Torah path, as the history of Chassidus (for example) attests. For example, singing/playing holy nigunim and being close to other Jews and to HaShem promote joy. Whatever highs we achieve this way are tools in our service of HaShem, not goals in themselves. Other, ersatz forms of joy do not serve this higher purpose.

  9. The way I relate to the joy is that I have a life that is meaningful. You were lucky to have had a synagogue that promoted such communal happiness, and the love of community is not a shallow feeling; however, the happiness which comes from inner satisfaction and knowledge that you are [trying] to live your life towards the purpose for which you were created is much greater. Combine that with a happiness in one’s chosen community/family, and that is a good start. Life in general is difficult, and the difficulties don’t go away just because one is frum. However, we have that overriding knowledge that we are living a correct life and we have tools that help us overcome the hurdles of life.

    Granted, some of standard institutions do not exactly promote a joyous atmosphere [some do!], but there are those movements that attempt that, such as Carlebach, etc. Chassidic shuls I am told also have more emotion.

  10. And my question to you is, what sort of effort are you alluding to when you speak of fabricating ? Joy along with those rigid religious outlooks and distinctly stern like directives.

    Are emotions like made to order optional side dishes shortcircuiting,toasting , sizzling and functioning to perfection should you decide to order them with your dinner that is.
    Or can you just order them through Jenny, that magic genie in a bottle, especially cuz Gd wants you to be jubilant and joyful?

    I guess if you think about it hard enough , joy is quite the easily attainable emotion. Its not that difficult to step right over challenge and adversity when trying to locate the jubilant spot. The possibilities for mind mending, emotion and perspective tweakings are endless.
    (rhetorical redundancies for reiteration purposes only, sometimes I feel like a broken blackberry repeating my questions but I can’t resist sticking them in when the topic arises , even though they are rhetorical in nature)

    From OTC remedies like ecstacy, alcohol, amusement park frequenting and or st johns wort to mainstream hyper happy helpers like Prozac, Àdderall and now the new and improved and oh sooo up and coming bibliotherapy – reading your way to inner bliss.

    So how did Gd want us to
    fabricate this bliss filled state of unadulterated joy you speak so fondly of.
    Could joy and bliss that’s fabricated with selfish self centered or just plain vain activities and efforts subsequently be used to serve Gd with ?
    Would that be messing with effort brownie points. Isn’t life all about the initial and consistent effort focus and intent …… Aren’t selfish endeavors frowned upon often.

    Its so much easier to love and serve Gd in a state of ecstacy. Even if the state of ecstacy was brought on by selfish stuff.

    Does Gd care how we get to the height of blissful utopia.does he want us living exclusively on the nutrition, inspiration has to offer.
    Once you bring neuroscience , logic , reasoning into the picture I’m not so sure bliss and jubilant would still be welcome unless you specifically target the brain areas where joy jubilant and ecstatic ecstacy reside and tweak accordingly.
    How can we be so sure Gd is overjoyed and in fact promotes this self help approach joy locating.

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