Last year when we read this week’s Torah portion I had just purchased a new crockpot. I got it at the local grocery store, and the cashier was worried that the one they sell was too basic, and might not be good enough. She sweetly and repeatedly gave me instructions on how to return it. In the end I was happy to keep the basic crockpot, but I cherished her kindness and concern for a stranger, and often think of that when I cook in it.
It was an especially nice interaction because we were in the midst of the Delta variant of Covid, and everyone was masked. As we have learned over these past two and a half years, it is possible to smile at – and with – someone, even from behind a mask; and to be kind and thoughtful, even if the person is a customer, just one of hundreds who pass before you at work.
It is also easy to overlook a person’s basic humanity when they walk around the world wearing a mask. We have had a hard time these past couple of years. It’s a relief when you can spend time with someone unmasked, at an outdoor restaurant, or on your patio, or walking in the neighborhood.
Those individual interactions are wonderful. We long for the same feeling when we go to synagogue or church in our well-known sanctuaries. After all, the word sanctuary means a place of refuge or protection, a place where you can feel especially safe and serene.
So I have decided to reframe the way I think about the masks we wear, especially now that infections are rising and masks are being required indoors again.
Instead of thinking of masks as things that separate us, I see each person’s mask as a tiny sanctuary. The mask keeps you safe, allows us to interact with each other even if one is contagious with Covid, or the flu, or some other airborne illness. They are personal, portable sanctuaries that allow us to go out in the world and feel safe and protected.
There’s a caveat to this. Good health, or even merely acceptable health, isn’t enough. If that’s all we’ve got, then our lives are basically empty. We crave more. We crave other people, good food, good company, joy or at least enough joyful moments to make it all worthwhile.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks called joy “one of the fundamental themes of [the book of] Deuteronomy.”
He saw a distinction between joy and happiness. He said: “Happiness is something you pursue. But joy is not. It discovers you. It has to do with a sense of connection to other people or to God. It comes from a different realm than happiness. It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude.”
We don’t “happy” one another’s company, we enjoy it.
Joy plays a key role in this week’s Torah portion, called Ki Tavo. We get a message that the Torah considers to be of supreme importance about the significance of joyfulness. Moses was trying to cajole the people into remembering to be Jewish when they entered the Promised Land, and he bounced back-and-forth between curses and blessings.
Towards the beginning, the Torah makes the first of two declarations about joy: “…you will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given you and your family, along with … the stranger in your midst.” (Deut. 26:11).
At the end it offers a litany of curses. Nothing unusual about that in Deuteronomy. The odd thing is why the people would be cursed. The curses were invoked simply “because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things.” (Deut. 28:47)
In other words, they would be cursed if they did not remember to live joyfully. Life would be good, they would have abundance all around them, but Moses worried that they wouldn’t be joyful.
Clearly, I am expanding on the phrase, “serve the Lord,” and using it to mean, “live your life.” Whether you believe in God or not, living our lives with joy is our way of giving thanks for life, for bounty, for love, and (if you believe) for God.
As we move into the Days of Awe, the High Holidays, my tradition encourages each of us to look inside, to “re” – reconsider, renew, repent, and recreate. We look both at the year that is past, and ahead to the year to come.
We ask ourselves, what did I do, where did I go, who did I meet on the way during this year?
Especially who – the people with whom we managed to interact, despite Covid and our portable, personal sanctuaries. The grocery store cashiers. The people we didn’t know but were polite to. The people we love. Sometimes in person, often over the phone, many times on the computer. The times of sheer joy in each other’s company. And the times when we were alone and joy seemed a distant memory.
Many Jews are synagogue shopping at this time of year, trying to find the best fit for themselves. They are looking for a spiritual home where they too can participate in the sheer joy of being part of a community.
If you are part of a community and see a pair of eyes behind a mask that you don’t recognize, introduce yourself. And don’t be embarrassed if the person turns out to be a long-time member who you happened to not recognize in the moment, under a mask. Over these many months of separation, you may not have seen each other for quite some time. Relax into meeting each other again.
When we look back at the past year, may we remember the moments of individual happiness, shared joy, and joyful community. May we feel pride in our strength and resilience, as individuals, as communities, as a people.
When we look forward to the new year may it be with renewed conviction to share both our joys and our sorrows with the people we love, and with the communities that support us.