Engraved in Hebrew on the Jerusalem stone of our synagogue’s eastern wall is verse two of Psalm 100: “Serve Adonai with joy; come before [God] with joyful singing.” This Psalm was chanted with the bringing of the Thanksgiving Offering in the time of the Temple (Rashi). In the 18th, the Ba’al Shem Tov used this line to define the essential spiritual goal of joy in prayer and all service to God.
In English-speaking Churches this psalm was known as “Old Hundred,” and also had a place of distinction. For example, it is cited in Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer as the song of celebration when the community learned that Tom was still alive.
Remarkably, the line of “serve God with joy” (100:2) has a counterpart in Psalms: “Serve God with fear” (2:11). Our sages taught that the two phrases are complementary: when you are feeling inebriated with happiness, then read Psalm 2; and when sober and sad, elevate your spirits with the line of rejoicing (100:2) (Sefer Hasidim).
With joy as aspiration, the question was raised, how is such service of God attained?
Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, a Hasidic rabbi who dedicated his career as a psychiatrist to working with addicts, links verse 2 with the next line, “Know- for it is Adonai Who is God!” All too often sadness is a product of unrealistic expectations, he explained. Happiness is attained by learning to distinguish between what is in the realm of our control and what is in the purview of God alone (Living Each Day, p.110) (To hear my recent eulogy for Rabbi Twerski click here.)
Back to the Ba’al Shem Tov, he spoke of finding joy in each moment by attuning to God’s pervasive goodness. As was his way, he amplified his teaching with a story (and is the way of that oral tradition, each retelling is a bit altered):
Once a musician came to town and stood on a street corner and began to play. Passersby stopped to listen and soon there was a crowd dancing enthusiastically to the rhythmic melodies. A deaf man walked by and wondered what madness had seized his neighbors. “The pious,” the Ba’al Shem Tov declared, “are moved by the melody that issues forth from each facet of God’s creation, enabling an orchestra of sound and rejoicing. If this makes people appear mad to those with less sensitive ears, should they therefore cease to dance?!
We will read closely and we will rejoice!
This learning is dedicated to my wife, Linda, in celebration of our 34th anniversary.