Yes-And: Simcha and Social Responsibility

25 September 2015
12 Tishrei 5776

Shalom Chaverim,

This morning’s Limud Clali (community learning session) wove together different messages and modalities that beautifully illustrate the mission of our school and what it means to prepare high school students to lead and to serve.

We focused on the upcoming holiday of Sukkot* through texts and song. I taught the students an upbeat Shlomo Carlebach tune to a line in the High Holiday liturgy about “simcha v’sasson – gladness and joy”, and then shared Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ reflections on the deeper meaning of simcha (joy), which we are instructed to feel on all holidays, particularly on Sukkot. In one of his recent weekly teachings, “The Pursuit of Joy,” Rabbi Sacks wrote:

On Sukkot, we leave the security and comfort of our houses and live in a shack exposed to the wind, the cold and the rain. Yet we call it zeman simchatenu, our season of joy. That is no small part of what it is to be a Jew. Hence Moses’ insistence that the capacity for joy is what gives the Jewish people the strength to endure. . . Celebrating together binds us as a people: that and the gratitude and humility that come from seeing our achievements not as self-made but as the blessings of God. The pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to self-regard and indifference to the sufferings of others. It can lead to risk-averse behaviour and a failure to ‘dare greatly.’ Not so, joy. Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which He has invited us as His guests.

We live in a world where, for so many people, the pursuit of happiness is about what is good for “me”. In many cases, this means material success and attaining things that I desire to have or achieve. Not so, the simcha that Judaism commands us to feel, Rabbi Sacks explains. This is a joy of humility and of gratitude, a joy that we feel, paradoxically, only when we are able to give up the illusion of total control over our lives and trust our relationships with others and our sense of being part of something larger than ourselves. Our students often tease me about how often I use the word “community,” but this notion of simcha helps to explain why. Our mission is to help students break down the dichotomy between personal self-fulfillment and connection to and responsibility for others, to prepare them to fully actualize themselves in community—as connectors, contributors, builders of community.

We concluded our learning with a new topic: the Syrian refugee crisis and raising money for Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, a global effort to help address this humanitarian crisis in our time. While these may seem unrelated, the move from the joy and mitzvot of Sukkot to the humanitarian relief effort addresses a second learned dichotomy about being Jewish that we strive to break down: the mistaken notion that we must identify either as Jews, caring only about our particular people, or as human beings,

citizens of the world, with universal values and concerns. If our students are going to be prepared to live inspired and responsible Jewish lives in the 21st century, they need to understand that this is a yes-and proposition: To be a great Jew is to be a great human being. Below is Maimonides’ description of how we express our joy on Jewish holidays (Laws of Yom Tov 6:18):

When a person eats and drinks, he is obligated to feed and give drink to the foreigner, orphans, widows and other despondent, poor people. But one who locks the doors of his yard and eats and drinks with his children and wife, without feeding and giving drink to the poor and the downtrodden – this is not the joy of a mitzvah, but rather the joy of his belly…

As we reflect on our particular story, on the blessings in our lives, and on the many protective structures, both physical and metaphorical, that have sheltered our ancestors throughout thousands of years, we need to ask ourselves who, in our world, at our time, is still in need of shelter, food, and protection. For ethically responsible, passionately engaged Jews, gratitude and joy go hand-in-hand with social responsibility, global consciousness, and tikkun olam.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Marc Baker

*Sukkot begins Sunday night and lasts for eight days, concluding with the two days of Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. Since many of us may not be familiar with all of the details of these festivals, including why they last eight days, you can find helpful information on Sukkot 101 at:


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