Many of us approach the Jewish new year with a flood of different emotions, jumping rapidly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot. We might be unlikely to associate joy with Yom Kippur. Yet, the Talmud tells us that Yom Kippur is one of the two happiest days of the Jewish year.
It could be hard to make that connection. Yom Kippur can feel austere. The different shofar blasts are associated with different forms of weeping.
As we enter the new year and take stock of ourselves, how far we can each be from who we are called to be, how often we fall short, and how removed we can feel from meaning and peace, it could be easy to feel broken hearted. Many of the Jewish leaders we train and support organize around issues that break their heart – it can be hard to believe that we still have to fight against the blasphemy of anti-Black racism or for reproductive autonomy, and heart rending to see things going in the wrong direction. And for Jews of Color, particularly Black and brown Jews, there can be a justifiable feeling of a defeatedness at a country that has never been just or equal.
Bring all that with you into Yom Kippur, and you can’t eat, either.
So, how do we find joy?
The traditional Jewish liturgy adds Psalm 27 to morning and evening services in the month before and the weeks after Rosh Hashanah. The psalm ends with “Hope to the Lord, be strong and may your heart be courageous, and hope to the Lord.” Why the repetition? In the Talmud, Rabbi Chama explains that if one prays and what they pray for doesn’t come to pass, they should pray again. We have to be strong and have courageous hearts so that we can keep at it, even when we fall short.
On the same page in the Talmud, Rabbi Elazar teaches, “since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer are locked… yet, even though the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears have not been locked.”
Maybe our tears, maybe our hearts breaking at all the injustice and indignity around us, can actually make our hearts courageous so that we can stay in the struggle. The heart is a muscle and our former executive director, Karla Van Praag, taught at a JOIN Organizing Fellowship siyum that, when muscles tear, they can grow back even stronger. In a training video for our Don’t Kvetch, Organize! course, we quote the organizer Richard Harmon who contrasts optimism with hope. Harmon says that hope is primal, and only real after one does the grieving work and comes out the other side. Or, as adrienne maree brown writes, “grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life.”
Through SEA Change, in our Organizing Fellowship, our seminary courses, our online training, our new Jews of Color Organizing Fellowship, in all of our work, we help people name and understand the oppression around us, and support them as they grieve. But the gates of tears are not locked – once we grieve, we help leaders build the determination to act by organizing people around us into a powerful force, scheming up a strategy, and acting. We support them as they dig into the struggle. And if our hope isn’t rewarded with success, we can act again. And again.
On Yom Kippur we can grieve. But the rabbis taught that it’s a joyous day because we know that, if we sincerely desire to do better, God will give us another chance. Our tears can open the gates – and then it’s on us to build the community and the power to do our part to stand for our values and our lives.
May this be a year where we hope, we build, and we struggle, and may we continue to realize that we’ll only move forward together – in solidarity with each other and other communities around us. May this be a year that, when we get knocked down, we’ll get up, we’ll grieve – and then go back to hoping and acting. We’ll fight. Rest. Fight some more. We’ll find joyous moments to experience together, and celebrate wins, both big and small. May it be a good year, a better year, for everyone.
Jess & Meir
JOIN Co-Executive Directors
Thank you for your support this year – Can you extend it into the New Year with a gift today?