The key to a happy life? Being able to ride that sine curve of life's ups and downs. Happiness comes from modulating our awareness between the abundance of life and our fear of death. Like walking away from a car crash or getting a cancer free diagnosis, facing mortality brings mindfulness about what life has to offer. Contrasts serve as a reminder to live our lives more fully.
Religion is crucial in helping us to navigate that space between enjoying life’s pleasures and fretting over our precarious existence. The accoutrements of the Jewish religious tradition remind us of the balance needed to enjoy our lives. Yet, the experience of being Jewish often tips towards the anxiety of threats and traumas rather than its pleasures.
How does Judaism address the contrasts between life’s richness and risks? It begins with Torah focusing our attention both in grand stories of miracles and details of clothing designs. For example, the pattern around the hem of the High Priest’s robes serves to remind us of the contrast of life and death.
On its hem make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around: a golden bell and a pomegranate, a golden bell and a pomegranate, all around the hem of the robe. Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out — that he may not die. Exodus 29:34 – 36.
Pomegranates are a traditional image of fertility and the richness of life. By contrast, bells are a signal of death. The repeating pattern of pomegranates and bells around the robes of the High Priest remind us that the full experience of living is a roller coaster ride (said the grandmother in the movie Parenthood).
As the history of Judaism unfolded, rabbis replaced the High Priests in leadership and prayers replaced sacrifices in our practices. Accordingly, the reminders of fecundity and mortality moved from the hem of the priests' robes to a repeating pattern in our prayers. The contrast is highlighted from morning prayers of gratitude for bodies that function until evening prayers requesting protection from harm. Interspersed are blessings offered for rescue and redemption and an occasional verse from psalms about the joy of dwelling in God’s abode. In garments or prayerbooks, the sine curve of life is on display.
Yet, I worry that our experience of being Jewish tends toward the perils and does not successfully emphasize the possibilities. Jewish leaders are adept at tolling bells of warning. Life’s fragility is often the Jewish experience's dominant theme. For some, Jewish identity is focused on responding to anti-semitism, fighting anti-Zionism or anticipating the next holocaust (God forbid).
Not so for many of the younger generations. In a safe and secure America, millennial Jews have no deep connection with such fears. Their tenuous attachment to Judaism will improve if they are offered positive Jewish experiences. While we must be persistent in confronting anti-semitism and anti-Zionism in the world, we must also give attention to the richness and joy in the Jewish experience. A healthier Judaism would operate with equal parts of sweet life affirming pomegranates and bells that toll danger.
What gives balance to your experience of being Jewish? Here's an idea: try really having a great time next shabbat with family or friends. Celebrate being Jewish. Perhaps start by adding pomegranate seeds to your bitter arugula salad! And enjoy being Jewish with the Jewish Studio.
Rabbi Evan Krame