About twenty years ago, my wife’s grandfather taught me the following old Yiddish saying: “There are three things that we must learn from a baby: A baby laughs when he is happy, cries when he is sad, and never stops moving.” He explained that we all need to learn how to stay present in the moment enough to smile and laugh when things are going smoothly as well as allow ourselves to cry when they are not. Additionally, we need to stay productive, “never stop moving.” In the next few paragraphs, I would like to discuss the first two lessons and save the third for our next post.
While I have tried to live those lessons for many years, the past few weeks have given me a deeper perspective. As I finish my third week in Camp Chaverim (a camp for children and young adults with special needs; please see the previous two blog posts for more on that) I am learning what honest emotion without inhibition looks like. When things are going well, my new friends are completely happy and positive. Their sincere smiles are ear to ear. They literally laugh out loud. They know how to show friendship without any reticence. As an example, there is a young man who usually shakes my hand to say good morning as he passes my seat on the way into morning services. This past Thursday, I was bending down to tie my shoe as he was walking past me and I did not notice him approaching. Seeing that I had my hands full and not wanting to be a burden, he lovingly patted me twice on the head as he walked by and said good morning. I don’t think anyone has patted me on the head in the last 35 years. I don’t think many handshakes that I have given or received in the last 35 years had as much love or sincere goodwill as those two head taps did.
The boys and young men here know how to cry as well. When things don’t go their way they let you know in no uncertain terms. Camp is a happy place and it doesn't happen often, but when one of my new friends is sad, they show their pain with no inhibition.
While watching all of this I ask myself, am I being as honest with my emotions as these campers are? Do I really allow myself to laugh and cry when I need to? Seeing the campers' uninhibited personalities is helping me put that question into perspective. When we learn to fully experience and express our emotions, we can be truly self aware and deal with each emotion properly.
There are many instances in the Torah where we are taught this lesson. Let’s explore one example of experiencing joy and one example of experiencing sadness.
The classic Torah work Sefer Hachinuch explains that the mitzvahs of Sukkos are designed to help us experience the natural joy of the harvest season in the most productive way. We would naturally feel a sense of exuberance after working for an entire year and finally reap a successful harvest, and the Torah wants us to channel that joy properly.
A practical example of this are the mitzvahs of mourning and shiva. Jewish Law requires that mourners not work for seven day after the loss of a loved one. During that time, mourners are to reflect on their loss and have friends and family visit and try to console them. By fully appreciating the gravity of the loss, they are able to address their pain and begin to rebuild. (Looking for more on the Jewish perspective on death and mourning? Please see this three-part webinar.)
Let's learn how to be a little more honest with our emotions and be a little more real and self aware. All jokes aside, laughing out loud may not be such a bad idea after all.