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How can we be happy at a time like this?

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“When Adar comes in, we increase in joy!” That’s a statement straight out of the Talmud. It has been put to music, and traditionally sung during these festive weeks leading up to Purim. Last Shabbat, we ushered in and blessed the new month of Adar Bet, the “real” Adar, in which Purim is celebrated. We were meant to increase our joy a month ago, and now in the second month of Adar, the joy should intensify.

But understandably, people ask, “How can we celebrate when our brothers and sisters in Israel are in danger, displaced, fighting for their lives, besieged, and still under attack north and south? They are fighting in Gaza, homeless in the Galilee, asphyxiating in bomb shelters, and we’re singing and dancing? How can we be so insensitive to their terrible situation?”

I well remember being a guest speaker at a kosher hotel programme over Sukkot in Tuscany on 7 October, when we heard the shocking news of the Hamas attack on Israel. In the diaspora, it was Shemini Atzeret followed by Simchat Torah. That night, everyone was asking: “What should we do? We’re meant to celebrate with hakafot and dancing. Can we dance now? Can we celebrate?”

There were a number of Israelis with us at the hotel. One woman couldn’t stop crying. She had family there, and didn’t know if they were safe. Many changed their plans, and got on the first flight back to Israel. But for the non-Israelis present, the question was how to observe this normally joyous holiday with such dark clouds hanging over our brothers and sisters – and indeed all of us.

I’ll tell you my answer soon.

But first, let’s talk about joy, happiness, and, as we call it, simcha.

Let’s begin by asking why should anyone be happy? Because life is good? And what if it’s not so good now. Should we be depressed?

Psalm 100 tells us, “Ivdu et hashem b’simcha” (Serve G-d with joy). It doesn’t qualify this by saying when or under what circumstances we should be happy. So, as we’re always meant to be serving G-d, it appears that the psalmist expects us to be happy always, no matter the situation.

But is that possible? Let’s be realistic. Must we be so foolishly naïve about our difficulties, throw caution to the wind, and sing and dance with gay abandon? Is that what the Torah wants of us? Does G-d need a bunch of idiots who are blissfully oblivious to reality serving Him with joy when the world is falling apart?

Actually, some people do have that attitude. Are you old enough to remember the ridiculous song that, unbelievably and to my utter horror became an international hit? Written by Bobby McFerrin back in 1988, it actually won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in spite of having, to my mind, the most inane lyrics of any song in history.

The song was Don’t Worry, Be Happy. Here are some of its less-than-memorable lyrics:

Don’t worry, be happy

In every life we have some trouble

But when you worry you make it double

Don’t worry, be happy.

The landlord say your rent is late

He may have to litigate

Don’t worry, be happy.


‘Cause when you worry your face will frown

And that will bring everybody down

So don’t worry, be happy.

So, according to this songwriter, why shouldn’t we worry? Because worrying will only make it worse. True, worrying does make it worse, but simply “don’t worry, be happy” isn’t a philosophy of life and certainly not a solution to the cause of our worries.

So, let me share with you some of the lyrics of another song. It didn’t make it to the Billboard Top 10 or the Hit Parade. In fact, it goes back more than 200 years, and it’s in Yiddish.

The composer of this song, which I believe will give us motivation to be happy and not worry, is the legendary Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809). The song is titled Ah Dudeleh.

Dudeleh” is a play on words. Literally, it means a little ditty, limerick, or ballad. But “dudeleh” can also come from the word “du”, which in Yiddish means “you”. And who is “you”? The one above, G-d Almighty.

Here’s the chorus:

Look to the East? Du. Who do you see? You! Almighty G-d. Look to the West? Du! Hashem, You again. North? You. South? You. Look Up? You. Look down, You again!

Wherever I turn what do I see? Du! You, Hashem. You are all over, all pervasive, all-present. On every continent and in every corner and crevice.

The most important part of the song says, “When times are good, who is responsible? You, Hashem. And if, G-d forbid, things aren’t so good? It’s You again, Hashem. Everything is part of Your divine providence and Your higher plan.”

The critical bottom line is, “If indeed whatever life throws at me, good or bad, comes from You, then it must be good.”

We’ve always believed that first, G-d runs the world, and second, G-d is good. This is a cardinal principle of Jewish faith and theology. G-d runs the world. And G-d is good. He’s not throwing darts or lightning bolts at us. He loves us.

So, even when things appear not to be good, we believe that somehow, with the passage of time, we’ll see G-d’s higher plan unfolding. Sooner or later, we’ll see that everything was for the best and, yes, everything is actually good.

That’s why regardless of the situation now or at any other time, we’re called upon to “serve G-d with joy”.

While I do agree with some of the sentiments of the other songwriter, Don’t worry, be happy, the assertion that we shouldn’t worry because worrying just makes it worse is simply silly. No, don’t worry and be happy because G-d is running the world, and He alone is calling the shots – not Hamas, not Iran, not even Vladimir Putin. “The hearts of kings are in the hands of G-d,” says Proverbs 21.

So, let’s continue to pray for our brethren in Israel and the world over. Let’s continue to pray that we won’t need to rely on our faith but will have tangible, physical reasons to feel happy, safe, secure, and comfortable, with no threats, no war, no terror, and no violence.

That Shemini Atzeret in Tuscany, I told my congregants that we must dance with the Torah, even on 7 October. We dare not give our enemies the pleasure of destroying our holidays. We’ll dance through the darkness, and overcome our foes by rededicating ourselves to our Jewish mission.

It has been inspirational to see the videos of Israeli soldiers singing and dancing in their bases with their comrades in arms, celebrating in advance their full and final victory. “Together, we’ll be victorious,” please G-d, in spite of all our losses and pain.

We’ll celebrate the joyous month of Adar and the beautiful festival of Purim, please G-d, with joy and happiness, faith and fortitude, smiles and l’chaims, with singing and dancing. We’ll have a happy Purim and, please G-d, we’ll all see the downfall of today’s Hamans speedily in our day.

  • Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg, and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.

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