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OpinionJewish & Israeli Holidays

‘Don’t worry, be happy!’

How can we be happy at a time like this?

Haredi Jews celebrate Purim at a yeshivah in the Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, March 8, 2023. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Haredi Jews celebrate Purim at a yeshivah in the Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, March 8, 2023. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from Ktav.com and Amazon.

“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. This Shabbat we will usher in and bless 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 are singing and dancing? How can we be so insensitive to their terrible situation?

I well remember being a guest speaker at a kosher hotel program over Sukkot in Tuscany on Oct 7 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 are 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 to the first flights 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 God with joy.” It doesn’t qualify this by saying when or under what circumstances we should be happy. So, as we are always meant to be serving God, 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 God 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 despite having—to my mind—the inanest 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.

Why?

‘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” is not 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 on to the Billboard Top 10 or the Hit Parade. In fact, it goes back over 200 years, and it’s in Yiddish.

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

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

Here’s the chorus:

Look to the East? Du. Who do you see? You! Almighty God. 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, God forbid, things are not so good? It’s You again, Hashem. Everything is part of Your Divine Providence and Your Higher Plan.

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

We have always believed that a) God runs the world and b) God is good. This is a cardinal principle of Jewish faith and theology. God runs the world. And God 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 will see God’s higher plan unfolding. Sooner or later, we will see that everything was for the best and, yes, everything is actually good.

That is why regardless of the situation now or at any other time, we are called upon to “Serve God with joy.”

While I do agree with some of the sentiments of the other songwriter, “Don’t worry, be happy,” we shouldn’t worry because worrying just makes it worse. That’s simply silly. No, don’t worry and be happy because God 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 God,” says Proverbs 21.

So, let us continue to pray for our brethren in Israel and the world over. Let us 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 Oct. 7. We dare not allow our enemies the pleasure of destroying our holidays. We will 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 will be victorious,” please God, despite all our losses and pain. 

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

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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