One of my most memorable Jewish experiences was serving as the student rabbi in Fairbanks, Alaska at Congregation Or Hatzafon, Light of the North. This small Jewish community dedicates itself to keeping the light of Judaism alive. Even on the darkest, coldest winter days, the community comes together to celebrate Judaism and to pass down our beautiful tradition to the next generation.
A few summers ago, on a warm July morning in Fairbanks, a young man became a bar mitzvah. A large portion of the community came to synagogue that Shabbat to celebrate this Simcha — to delight in the joy of this holy moment.
The community support elevated the joy and excitement. When this young man looked out at the community from the bimah, he saw not only his immediate family and friends, but he saw K’lal yisrael, the People of Israel, standing with him in support.
In powerful moments like this, we are reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. One family’s simcha becomes the entire community’s simcha. The entire Jewish community may share in one another’s joy.
Not only may we experience the power of communal connection in small Jewish communities like Fairbanks, but in larger Jewish communities as well. We may certainly experience the power of communal connection here in the Jewish community of Milwaukee. In such a strong, inspiring, and vibrant community, we have the ability to come together in the difficult times, as well as in the joyous moments of celebration.
In this week’s Torah portion, Vayakhel, the Israelites continue to work together as a community as they learn the value of becoming a People. As they build the mishkan, the portable dwelling place for God’s presence, they see that God’s presence dwells among them. God’s presence dwells in their connections, in their loving care and support for one another.
Like our ancestors, we may search for God’s presence within the close bonds of our Jewish community. We may experience joy, holiness, and comfort in moments of connection — moments when we celebrate being part of K’lal Yisrael.
In the month of Adar, as we prepare for Purim, our tradition teaches us to come together as a community and elevate in joy. Wearing costumes, playing at carnivals, and celebrating the survival of our people help us renew in ourselves this sense of joy.
With our daily struggles and the awareness of pain, violence, and tragedy, many of us find it challenging to express joy. Still, Jewish tradition teaches us that the ability to express joy as we delight in the blessings around us is one of our greatest gifts.
Mussar teacher Alan Morinis teaches about the value of joy. He explains that while happiness is dependent on our situation, joy is unconditional. He states, “We can see that joy is much more profound and lasting than happiness. Joy is not so fleeting, because it arises out of profound connection, not a moment of gratification.”
Our ancestors experienced this profound connection while marching together in the wilderness, yearning for the Promised Land. We too are capable of experiencing this profound connection that may enable us to express joy, even during the hardest times.
Connecting with our Jewish community, celebrating the simchas of those around us, engaging with community members of all ages may help us experience joy. This sense of connection allows us to recognize that we are not alone — we are part of a People, a chain of tradition.
When we make an effort to celebrate the joys of others as though they are our own, we may find ourselves experiencing joy more easily. Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel illustrated this eagerness to express joy for others:
“One day, people noticed Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (1849-1927), the Alter of Slabodka, enjoying a private banquet,” relays the book, “Every Day, Holy Day: 365 Days of Teachings & Practices from the Jewish Tradition of Mussar,” by Morinis.
“What was the occasion? He had been told that a man in a far-off land — whom he did not know — had won a great prize. So the Alter was full of joy for him. And so he made himself a party.”
In the month of Adar as we prepare for Purim, may we too feel invited to celebrate the simchas of the Jewish community, as we come to understand that the blessings and joys of K’lal Yisrael are meant to be shared.
Just as the Israelites experienced God’s presence as they worked together to build the mishkan, may we too experience God’s presence when we come together and celebrate being part of the Jewish community.
Jenn Mangold is an assistant rabbi with Congregation Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Fox Point.
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What is Mussar?
Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice that gives concrete instructions on how to live a meaningful and ethical life. Mussar books were considered a minor part of the Jewish literature, until the 19th century, when Rabbi Israel Salanter created the Mussar movement.