I’ve been reading a book called “Every Day, Holy Day.” (That’s not an affiliate link or anything–I’m not set up for that here.) It’s a devotional that brings the Jewish practice of Mussar into your daily life.
Mussar is a form of spiritual discipline. Mussar actually translates to moral conduct or moral discipline. From the Mussar Institute:
Mussar is a path of contemplative practices and exercises that have evolved over the past thousand years to help an individual soul to pinpoint and then to break through the barriers that surround and obstruct the flow of inner light in our lives. Mussar is a treasury of techniques and understandings that offers immensely valuable guidance for the journey of our lives.
In “Every Day, Holy Day” this takes the form of 26 qualities, which are focused on for a week each, and then they repeat. Each day you get a very short paragraph with a thought on that week’s area of focus, a mantra to repeat, and a space for you to write something about that day’s lesson.
These are mostly what you’d think and the have a minimal impact on my day to day life, which is also what you would expect. But last week there was a reading on “joy” that made a big big impact on me and changed the way I think of things.
This is the reading for that day:
One day, people noticed Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka, enjoying a private banquet. What was the occasion? He had been told that a man in a far-off land–whom he did not know–had won a great prize. So the Alter was full of joy for him. And so he made himself a party.
It really made me think. We feel besieged right now. Well, not just right now, we’ve been feeling besieged as a people as the omnipresence of the news grows. It used to be murder in the next town barely got onto our radar unless there was something scandalous about it. Now, the famine in the South Sudan is right in front of our eyes. The bombings in Syria are, too. Pictures of dead babies trying to escape Syria are everywhere. It’s terrible. We’re not any more in danger than we were before (despite some current rhetoric, the statistics are clear that violent crime is and has been decreasing) but it FEELS like we’re in more danger than we were before. That’s a direct result of constant news coverage, instant Twitter updates from people everywhere and so on and so on.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing–I think it’s good that we know what’s happening. Those of us who are mostly in a safe place are in a position to use our voices and our resources to help those who are not, and knowledge of the problems is the first step towards solving the problems.
But that reading made me realize, it goes the other way, too. We internalize the danger and the trauma, but we can also internalize the joy. There are still joyous things happening. Like the Rabbi in the story, we can celebrate people who win awards. We can celebrate small successes–one of my friends recently performed a solo in her choir, and that’s joyous, too–and we can turn little things into celebrations. I have a friend who put cupcake stickers on daily pill box, so every morning when she takes her meds for her chronic illness she has a little feeling of happiness because she loves cupcakes.
We can feel vicarious joy ALL the time. Even when we can’t find something joyous in our own lives, we can find something joyous in the world to celebrate. People damaging Jewish cemeteries is terrible, but the Muslim community raising money to repair it and community members volunteering to clean it up is joyous. So often we focus on the sadness we see in our much more globalized world, but there’s nothing stopping us from focusing on the joy we can find in those connections.