Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:16
The public radio program “Radiolab” recently aired a story about a man expressing pure joy.
The man, Aleksander Gamme, is an adventurer; the event happened on day 86 of his three-month trek to and from the South Pole. On that day, Gamme discovered a bag he had stashed under ice at the start of his trip. He was famished, exhausted and weary, but when he found two bags of cheese snacks and some candy, his cries of joy were unchecked, unrestrained and complete.
Why even mention such a thing? What’s so interesting about an expression of joy that the program devoted 10 minutes to it? The hosts of the show were taken aback by the man’s expression of joy, and commented that it is rare that we see such expressions of happiness.
I agree. In fact, I have often noted this myself. Each time we come to Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea), in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, I imagine that the joy of the Israelites was total, exuberant and loud. And then I wonder why we are so restrained upon reading the account. Where are our shouts of joy, our spontaneous songs, our unchoreographed dances?
I have the same reaction with every repetition of Psalm 150, Hallelu-yah, the final psalm, the one that calls us to praise God with all of the musical instruments, all of our voices, all of our souls.
Where is our joy? Why don’t we clap and sing out? Where are our outbursts of laughter?
A story about two rabbis and their families who spend a Shabbat together on vacation tells us something about what we might be missing: These two families, camping in the mountains ate, their Shabbat meals together, and afterward they sang zmirot (Shabbat songs).
After lunch, the two rabbis took a walk. Along the way they encountered a man, head completely shaven, who stopped and introduced himself. He told them that he was a Buddhist monk, and that he had been meditating near the building where they were staying. While sitting under the tree, he had heard them singing zmirot. At first, he thought his soul was experiencing heavenly chants; then he realized that the sounds had a more earthly tone.
As they continued to speak, the monk revealed that he had been born Jewish and had the Hebrew name Yaakov. He had had a bar mitzvah many years before, but had found Judaism “lacking beauty and spirituality.” He admitted that he had tried, on numerous occasions, to attend synagogue services, but found each experience uninspiring. Therefore, he went searching among other religions until he became a Buddhist monk.
After hearing his story, the rabbis assured the monk that what he thought was a great revelation was indeed just that. It was the zmirot of Shabbat calling him back home, showing him that life abounds with radiance and beauty and that our practice of Judaism provides a means by which we can express our gratitude and our joy.
What would happen if we allowed ourselves to truly show our feelings of joy — for Shabbat, for our families, for our friends, for the abundance in our lives? As we read the liberation narratives in our weekly Torah portion, this week and for the next several weeks, let’s see what happens if we allow ourselves to express our joy. We can start by singing out with our voices. Who knows? Next year we might even clap our hands!
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)