Years ago, my then four-year-old son accompanied me on official business. I was called to officiate at a baby naming. Following the ceremony he found some other children with which to play. Later, a parent reported the following conversation between the two young boys.
Nathan, “Who is your dad?”
Ari, “He’s that guy over there.”
Ari, “He is the rabbi.”
Nathan, “What’s a rabbi?”
Ari, “He goes to parties.”
That seems a rather apt description of the rabbinic calling. It also is the essence of Judaism’s central teaching.
We are commanded to rejoice. We are obligated to celebrate.
When meeting with couples in preparation for their upcoming wedding, I always remind them of this idea. Judaism does not believe that the religious part of the evening concludes with the breaking of the glass and the shouts of “Mazel tov.” It does not see a line separating the words recited and the rituals performed under the huppah from the drinking and dancing at the party. It sees the entire evening as one long religious occasion.
Our sacred duty does not conclude until the couple leaves the celebration. We are commanded to dance with the groom. We are obligated to rejoice with the bride.
In a world focused on individual fulfillment, Judaism (stubbornly) insists on obligation to others. Most people imagine that it focuses on our obligations to pray and our commandments to give donations. And yet, among its most profound commandments is the demand that we sing and dance. The great Hasidic Rabbi, Nachman of Bratslav, who it is reported battled depression was fond of saying, “Get into the habit of singing a tune. It will give you new life and fill you with joy. Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.”
On days when I find myself exhausted and exacerbated after reading the morning paper, when I increasingly find myself feeling defeated, I reach back to the wisdom of a toddler. Sure, the world is beset by problems and challenges that demand our attention. We are required never to turn aside. We must fight injustices. And we must bring healing.
And yet, I have come to realize that we can do little for the world if our hearts are not filled with a measure of joy, and our souls are not steeled by memories of celebrations.
Yes, my job is to go to parties.
Get up. Celebrate. Sing. Rejoice. Dance.
That should not only be my job but everyone’s.
Rabbi Steven Heneson Moskowitz is the rabbi of Congregation L’Dor V’Dor, a vibrant synagogue on Long Island’s North Shore. His writing appears in a variety of publications including Reform Judaism and The Times of Israel. He also blogs at rabbimoskowitz.com