Not long ago, I performed with a group of musicians whose country is facing an existential threat. It seems like that applies to so many of our communities right now… I feel like I should not mention them by name, but I am open if anyone wants to suggest otherwise.
In the middle of our show, a woman stood up in the audience and began cursing at everyone loudly, finally leaving the hall in rage. There was a long moment of awkward silence as, back on the stage, the singer slowly gathered us all up again to continue what we were doing: Playing music, while all this was going on.
It was not until later that someone explained to me what the woman had said - since I did not speak the language. Though the show was a mix of many topics - from political to innocent - she was angry that people were daring to sing and have moments of joy, in the midst of the chaos that was overwhelming their country.
I’m no stranger to the idea of “no full joy where there should be sorrow”. Jews are somewhat famous for placing one on top of the other, as if it’s not ok to be fully happy as long as there is something to be sad about. We break the glass at a wedding to remember the fall of Jerusalem; we pray for the dead just before the final celebration of Shabbat; Israel celebrates its Independence Day the day after Memorial Day, year after year.
In trying to understand this difficulty of feeling joy in hard times - and speaking for myself here - it seems to me that there is a kind of guilt in feeling joy while others are grieving, or when bad things are happening. It’s as if my being joyous is a sign that I do not care, or worse - that I actually enjoy the pain of others. But I know that isn’t true. And lately, I have come to appreciate the power of joy, even - and perhaps all the more significantly - in times of grief and pain. And yes, I am referring to complete, all-encompassing joy - without guilt, without limitations; the kind of joy that washes over me, down into the marrow of my bones. I don’t think that it contradicts grief; I think that if anything, it can even free us up, to grieve more freely.
In the face of all this, I want to offer a story from my own collective past:
During the Holocaust, Jewish poets living in what is now Israel argued over whether they had a duty to compose songs about war. One of the proponents of this view was Nathan Alterman, one of the most famous poets in Israeli history. He argued that poets must help to strengthen the fighting spirit, and support the efforts to liberate Europe and all those who were suffering. One poet who spoke against him was Leah Goldberg, a giant in her own right. Deeply criticized for “not aiding the war effort”, she adamantly held to her views that in a time of struggle, nothing was more important than to celebrate the beauty and sanctity of life.
Then in 1943, while Nazy power was right around its peak, Leah Goldberg was asked - along with others - to contribute a poem for a newsletter that would go out to Jewish soldiers who were serving in the British army. Everyone was rather surprised when she agreed; but I think that the poem she finally submitted banished any questions about her cause. I cannot share the entire poem, but here is a translation of some of it. The original is known as “Haumnam”, which I might loosely translate as “Will it come to pass?”. I hope that her words speak for themselves:
“Will there yet be days of forgiveness and grace,
When you’ll walk in the field as the innocent wanderer,
And your naked bared foot will brush past the clovers,
Or wheat strands will prick you, and their touch will feel sweet…
…And things will be simple, and living,
And you are permitted to touch them,
And you are permitted, permitted, to love…
…And with straightness of heart, you will be humble and yielding
As one among the grasses, as one among life.”
That poem remains famous to this day. Of all the songs in that publication, this one survived like no other that I am aware of.
Joy can be a powerful light in dark times. It can be daring. Love can be daring. It reminds us of what we are fighting for. I see no reason for shame. Love - in all its glory - gives us the power to push through, in Leah’s words, “like sunlight through clouds”.
Take care of yourselves, and hold onto what truly matters. I pray that it will get us through these times.