Principals Perspective (September/October2022) - Rabbi Matthew Bellas
Rabbi Matthew Bellas

A Place and Time of Joy

While thinking about the kind of culture and atmosphere that I want for us to have at school for students, staff, and families, JOY is the first thing that always comes to mind. When members of our community come to the school feeling joyous, positive, and optimistic about their time here, that attitude has a significant impact not only on their own experience, but the tone and ethos in the school. When we smile and greet each other; when we share compliments and praise each other; when we celebrate Jewish festivals and our accomplishments together, our comfort and confidence grow and the school feels like an even more wonderful place to be. Creating a joyful atmosphere at school and being joyful has so many individual and communal benefits.

As a k’hilah/community, we are currently in the midst of the fall High Holy Day and festival season of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, and Simhat Torah. Each and every one of these haggim is joyous for its own reasons and Sukkot, according to tradition, is also called זמן שמחתינו/z’man simhateinu/the season of our joy or החג/heh-hag/THE festival because it is associated with the most joyous of beliefs, customs and traditions that we have. Our joy derives from coming together as a community, feeling close to our Judaism, Jewish tradition and God at this time, and the mitzvot, customs, practices, and traditions associated with the festivals.

It is said that when a culture has many different words for a specific concept or item, it is an expression of its centrality to that people. For example, many of us may have heard about how the Inuit people have 50 or more words for “snow.” This phenomenon goes very far back in human history to some of our most ancient civilizations having multiple words for things like earth, forest/trees, or water. For us, the Jewish people and in Hebrew language, our culture is linguistically rich with many different words for joy.

Living in Jewish community, studying Jewish history and practice, and observing Jewish traditions and customs is, first and foremost, supposed to be joyful. This truth is exemplified by the many different words we have in order to capture the various nuances of how we feel and express joy. Here is just a selection of our vocabulary for joy:

שמחה/simhah - our most generic word for joy that means “happiness.” This word is often used as a replacement for a lifecycle moment of celebration like a b’nei mitzvah or a wedding.

חדווה/hedvah - the type of joy that comes from being together in a small or large group community.

ששון/sason - a joy that results from a surprise or unexpected event.

גילה/gilah - the kind of joy that can hardly be contained; joy that is unparalleled and manifests in exuberance.

אורה/orah - a metaphorical term for joy that describes it as “light;” joy which shines through us, illuminates us, the place where we find ourselves, and those around us.

נחת/nahat - in Yiddish, we say “nahes” and this joy comes from a sense of pride in a loved one, our family, or the Jewish community.

דיצה/ditzah - this is an existential or sublime joy, the loftiest type of joy that we have, coming from a deep sense of satisfaction or understanding.

אשר/osher - a type of joy that is deep and long-lasting.

In addition to these selections, there are several other terms that are used in our tradition that mean joy. I chose these words specifically both for their meaning and - hopefully - for their familiarity as a result of their usage in different common Jewish practices, blessings, and prayers. And the message is indisputable: joy is the emotion that is supposed to rule the day in Judaism and Jewish life and we should be doing everything we can to pursue and build our communities on it. It is my joy to come to work each and every day and to share that joy and positivity with students, families, and staff.

As I reflected on the role and wish for joy that I have for us all and on the 5783 New Year, I was astounded to find the following in gematria, or Hebrew numerology:

תשפ"ג = 783 (sum of the digits is 18)

לשמחה = 378 (sum of the digits is 18)

As we have come through a long and trying period of time together here and around the world, it is not a coincidence that the numbers of this Jewish year and a blessing for joy not only have the same sum of the digits but are also equivalent to חי/life. As we have begun a new school year and the Jewish year of 5783 together, let us keep in mind that our intention should be to leap into this newness full of life and joy, a joy that we hope will stay with us long into the days, weeks, and months ahead and that will result in us being a stronger, united, thriving, and joyful community together.