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?