By Rabbi Dr. James Jacobson-Maisels
“I will run on the path of Your mitzvot for they widen my heart” (Ps. 119:32).
Do not we all want that widened heart? The Vitebsker in parshat Emor tells us that joy is accessible to us all. The path is the practice of letting go of ego, and the compassion and joy this engenders. It is our practice of Yom HaAtzmaut, of becoming free and independent, precisely by surrendering what we think we own, by releasing our tight protective sense of self. And this is the very nature of the mitzvot the Vitebsker teaches. The mitzvot bring us into contact with this joy, that, when we truly access it, courses through the cosmos, awakens the worlds, and causes the energy of life to flow. Does it not feel that way? Is that not the texture of joy?
Joy is so crucial. It is a pillar, a linchpin, of our path. Yet sometimes we neglect it or forget about it. We know, in our own experience, how and why joy, like a cleansing flood, sweeps away all obstacles. Who can maintain their anger, their anxiety, their jealousy, or their resentment in the face of joy? When we are filled with joy not only is there no place for these other states of mind and heart to arise, but it can even feel puzzling that we ever could have felt them. Perhaps this is why joy could be called the highest of qualities, as the Vitebsker does. True joy automatically brings virtue in its wake and removes that which blocks us from our true selves.
Yet joy is not pleasure and does not arise from the pursuit of our own pleasure. Rather, paradoxically, we experience joy, the Vitebesker tells us, precisely when we are not fixated on our own needs. It is in service, in compassion, and in caring about the pain of the world that joy arises. It is in passionately, powerfully and with great focus dedicating ourselves to our practice, not just for our own sake, but for the sake of healing the world, for the sake of doing the Divine will, for the sake of doing The Will, that which simply is called for to be done in this moment, that joy is awakened.
In the same way, our joy, however it arises, is a service to the world. We should revel and rejoice in our joy. We should honor its cleansing and healing power and we should make dedicated space for it in our lives. We need to dance, play, and sing more. We need to make more space to feel the joy in our dedication, service and offering rather than just the effort and the burden. We need to let ourselves be touched and opened by our concern for the pain of the world and rejoice in our hearts’ willingness to open to others. Let us purify ourselves in joy. Let us allow our hearts to open to our birthright.
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This teaching is an excerpt from Rav James’ weekly teaching for “Torah Study for the Soul,” a year-long text study program offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. For the full teachings and to receive teachings in your inbox each week, you may still register for this program at a pro-rated cost.