With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

Of Joy and Sorrow

12 March 2022
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Parashat Vayikra

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.

We began our service this morning by acknowledging the power of coming together as a community, reminding ourselves that when we share our happiness with others it becomes greater, just as when we share our troubles, they weigh less heavily on us.

How wonderful it is to be able to celebrate this morning the Bat Mitzvah of Yasmin and welcoming Helen formally into the Jewish people! We rejoice in song and with a hearty Mazal Tov!

But can we really celebrate in joy while we are also so acutely aware of the brokenness of the world as we continue to watch with great concern the horrors that are unfolding in Ukraine? Last night, Rabbi Aaron spoke about one of our twin communities in the Ukrainian city of Lutsk who are doing their utmost to stay sane despite air raid sirens interrupting their Shabbat services.

Well, sadly, as a people, we are well-versed in the pattern of intermingled joy and sorrow. Throughout history, the Jewish people have perfected the art of laughter through tears. In fact, the Jewish calendar regularly juxtaposes times of joy and sadness as many of our festivals are preceded by fast days such as is the case for the festival of Purim, which we will be celebrating next week.

The American Reform Rabbi Joel Mosbacher draws from these calendrical juxtapositions an important Jewish lesson:

Gam zeh ya’avor. (This, too, shall pass.) When you’ve come through a difficult time, gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass. It won’t always be dark and difficult, even when you can’t imagine ever seeing the light again. At the same time, when you’re feeling on top of the world, gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass. Make time, therefore, to appreciate every moment of joy, dancing, singing, and abundance. They won’t last forever; they, too, shall pass. The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “There is a time for mourning and a time for dancing.” But mourning and dancing are never fully separated. Mourning may turn into dancing and dancing into mourning.”

Our Torah portion this week, Vayikra, is the opening passage of the third book of the Hebrew Bible, known in English as Leviticus. Although you had the privilege of glancing into the Torah thanks to the marvels of technology while Yasmin read from chapter five so clearly and confidently, you will not have been able to see the small scribal quirk found in every scroll at the beginning of our portion. So let me just briefly get up an image of the relevant section for you.

If you look carefully, you will see that the final letter of the first word – the alef of Vayikra is smaller than the other letters. It is one of several examples where scribal tradition dictates that a certain letter must be written smaller or larger. While we sadly have no record as to why this scribal tradition developed, these scribal quirks provide us with opportunities for new interpretations. My Israeli colleague, Rabbi Haim Shalom, pointed out to me that by introducing the small alef, the Torah scroll connects the Hebrew words vayikra and v’yakeir. While the word vayikra means “he called upon,” the word v’yakeir, as it appears in the famous story of Bilaam and the donkey (Numbers 23:4) is connected to the verb m’kareh – something happening by chance. So, the difference between these two words highlights for us that Moses is presented with a choice – will he consider himself to be called to a mission or just go with the flow.

As Yasmin explained so eloquently in her D’var Torah considering the act of sacrifice at face value seems like a barbaric act to us modern readers. But it is possible to find meaning in this ritual if we consider the intent and what the ritual was supposed to signify. As the prophets remind us: even when it comes to sacrifices, we aren’t supposed to just go with the flow. What did the prophet Hosea teach, which Yasmin just read for us? “I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.”

Judaism invites us to consider ourselves being called to a mission rather than just going with the flow. While it certainly isn’t easy to hold that tension of joy and sorrow, in doing so – by recognising even at times of joy that the world is in need of repair, we are reminded that we are all called on the mission to harness our joy and share it. The rabbis teach (Pirkei Avot 1:2) that these small acts of gemilut chasadim (loving-kindness) aren’t just a nicety or a sign of good manners, they are the very foundation of the world.

And so, we acknowledge this morning that there are many reasons for our hearts to feel heavy with worry and sorrow, but that shouldn’t stop us from embracing the joy of this morning’s celebrations. For, as Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, who is more widely known under her blogger name the Velveteen Rabbi, reminds us, Judaism doesn’t ask us to choose between the sweetness of celebration and the bitterness of sorrow. Rather, our tradition teaches “that our hearts are flexible enough to hold both.”

And so as we celebrate with Yasmin and her family and friends, with Helen and all in our community here in our sanctuary in Northwood and in the small sanctuaries of your homes all around the world let us embrace our mission to take our joy and transform it into gemilut chasadim (loving-kindness). Together let us lay the foundations for a better world.