Reasons To Sing

Reasons To Sing

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.


Candlelighting, Readings:

Candlelighting: 7:56 p.m.

Torah Reading: Deut. 7:12-11:25

Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14-51:3


Millions of people have gone through life intent only on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The crass form of this philosophy, hedonism, is rightly condemned as unrealistic and immoral. A more sophisticated version, Epicurianism (named for the Greek philosopher Epicurus) modified the doctrine to make room for ethical behavior that, in the end, would prove more pleasurable than selfishly pursuing its opposite. The Rabbis, however, rejected Epicurianism because it recognized no God who cared about human behavior; they warned us against becoming an apikoros. 

Some two millennia later, a Jewish form of pleasure-seeking set in with chasidism, which branded sadness a particularly dangerous form of sin. The idea grew out of the chasidic belief that everything exists within God. If God pervades everything, sadness about anything must be a misplaced delusion that God is in nothing. Melancholy is the ultimate sin, a denial of God! It is a mitzvah to rejoice.

The will to rejoice could get out of hand. Solomon Maimon, a giant-size genius of the eighteenth century turned to philosophy after his dismay at watching a revered chasidic teacher “entertain” his followers by mercilessly pillorying a dejected follower. But overall, the chasidic emphasis on joy provided spiritual solace to the Jewish masses, whose poverty-stricken condition left them nothing objective to be joyful about.

By comparison, most readers of this column are likely to have a great deal to be happy about. Yet death and disaster haunt our lives too, and our generation’s “happiness quotient” (the joy we feel about life) is not noticeably greater than what our poor Polish ancestors felt. Indeed, our suicide rate is probably higher! So I am more than a little intrigued by the chasidic call for joy lamrot hakol, despite it all. 

Take, for example, a chasidic comment on a relatively innocuous turn of speech in our sedra: “If it comes to pass (v’haya im) that you forget Adonai your God…. you will certainly perish.” The phrase v’haya im, we are told, expresses joy. “Forgetting God,” in this context, must mean forgetting that God is everywhere and joy is central; we perish because of undue melancholy.

To be sure, I do not mean depression as a mental illness — no one should be blamed for a chemical imbalance or the sheer inability to find any joy at all in daily life. Nor do I make light of the tragic inequities that make some people’s lives a series of miseries, one after another. At some point one’s allotment of sorrow reaches Job-like proportions, and who can blame someone for suffering all of Job’s pain but (not being Job) enjoying none of his patience? I mean the condition that most of us face, sooner or later: somewhere this side of Job, but facing such trials as a dying child, a parent with Alzheimer’s, debilitating illness, financial ruin or a long-time relationship in tatters. Is it reasonable to expect to find joy in life even while subjected to an unreasonable share of the world’s injustices, insecurities and infirmities?

On my wall at work is a cartoon picturing a bird telling a hiker, “I do not sing because I am happy. I am happy because I sing.” If we wait to sing until we are happy, we might wait forever. Singing is a state of mind, not a response to what life deals us but a predilection that precedes it. Some people sing through life no matter how bad their condition. Others growl their way through it no matter how pleasant their lot. It is sometimes hard to sing with the rest of the human choir, the people upon whom fortune shines inordinately brightly. But we always have a choice: are we singers or growlers? It is a sin to be a growler, the chasidim say.

To be sure, suffering is real, and we have a right to cry over it, even if we should not let it blanket our singing with unmitigated sadness. We should also not stand in judgment upon others, who cannot manage to find joy despite illness, suffering and death. The innate state of growling is sufficient curse in itself. We ought not add to it by moral censure. 

But we ourselves can take chasidic wisdom to heart. We can wake up each morning and wind down each night with a song, not a growl, experiencing the miracle of inner tranquility despite outer turmoil; and showing a way out to those too mired in growling to find their singing voice. n

Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York, is an expert in the field of Jewish ritual and spirituality. He is the editor of “My People’s Prayerbook: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” and “The Way Into Jewish Prayer” (Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vt.). 


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