As Beth Jacob prepares to reopen this coming Shabbat, the first time our shul will function without capacity restrictions or mandatory distancing since March of 2020, I am surprised to find myself somewhat ambivalent and even anxious. On the one hand, the prospect of being in a building filled with the sound of davening, song, laughter, joyful greetings, and just plain schmoozing is incredibly exciting…and something I haven’t experienced since my family and I visited in February 2020! I’ve heard from many of you who feel the same way, and are thrilled to return to the building this coming Shabbat tefillot. On the other hand, the thought of coming back together at a time when there are precious members of the BJC community who won’t be able to participate in the “shul reunion,” whether because of medical vulnerabilities, physical challenges, or simply an abundance of caution, is heartbreaking. In this situation, the joy and the heartbreak exist side by side, or more accurately, our joy is attenuated by heartbreak.
Our tradition provides some guidance to help us negotiate this fraught, complex situation. In the Talmud, the Babylonian sage Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak struggles to understand what it means to pray the Amidah in a proper state of koved rosh (gravity or sobriety). He finds an answer in a verse in Psalms: ivdu et ha-Shem be-yirah ve-gilu bi-re’adah/“ serve the Lord in awe and rejoice with trembling.” Rav Nahman teaches that our davening should be guided by a spirit of “joy and trembling.” But aren’t joy and trembling in opposition to one another? Uncannily, the Gemara asks exactly that question: “Mai ve-gilu bi-re’adah?” What does this seemingly contradictory expression mean? And the answer, given by the great fourth-century Talmudic sage Rabbah, is remarkable: bi-m’kom gilah sham te’hey re’adah/ “where there is rejoicing, there should also be trembling.” In other words, one may not experience unbridled joy.
To illustrate the point, this teaching is immediately followed by the story about Rav Ashi, who made a wedding feast for his son. Much to his dismay, the guests were excessively joyous. In response, he brought a cup made of extremely expensive white glass into the room and broke it before them, and ve-a’atzeevu/“they became sad.” In other words, even at a wedding, it’s forbidden to be unabashedly joyful (as Rashi informs us in his commentary on the Talmud, this story is the source for the custom of breaking a glass at a wedding; the Talmudic text is located in tractate Berachot 30b-31a; I shared it with BJC shortly after arriving in Minnesota).
This teaching insists that it is essential to attenuate peak moments of joy, to soften even the happiest celebrations, with at least a bit of sorrow. I can think of no more fitting occasion for such conflicting emotions than the reopening of Beth Jacob Congregation in a few days. The happiness of those who come together in the building experience will be lessened by the knowledge that not everyone who wants to be there can be present. I urge those who are able to be present in the building on Shabbat to have a “broken glass experience,” to remember that there are beloved friends who yearn to be there but just can’t. Those in the building are certainly permitted to experience joy – but that joy must be lessened by a measure of sorrow until everyone who wants to join in person is able to do so. Gilu bi-re’adah/yes, let us rejoice…with trembling. And let us also find ways to make sure that those who aren’t ready to enter the building are provided with other ways to connect – continued classes taught via Zoom, plenty of outdoor programming this summer and fall, and encouraging small gatherings of shul members in a variety of settings.
We are one kehillah, bound together by bonds of love, devotion, and commitment. Some of us will connect on Shabbat virtually, via Zoom (which will continue in the coming weeks, to be replaced at some point by live streaming). Some will be physically present. Some will sit closely together, while others will prefer to maintain physical distance (a special space for which will be created in the social hall immediately behind the sanctuary). But whether we’re at home or in the sanctuary…behold how good and how pleasant it will be for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!
Bi-yedidut rabbah/with great affection,
Rabbi Adam Rubin, Ph.D.
Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Morris J. Allen Chair in Rabbinics