Remembering the joy of a birthday
Last year I taught a piece of midrash in her memory. It is an orphaned passage, unclear on where it belongs. Published by Bernard Mandelbaum in his edition of Pesikta deRav Kahana from a single manuscript, it may possibly be a remnant of the lost midrash Harninu. [For this see Shibole Haleket 174, Abraham ben HaGr"a in Rav Pealim p. 47, David Henshke in Akdamot 6  p. 67). It is all about happiness.
ושמחת בחגיך - את מוצא שלש שמחות כתובות בחג... אבל בפסח אין את מוצא שכתובה
בו אפילו שמחה אחת, ולמה, אלא את מוצא שבפסח התבואה נידונית ואין אדם יודע אם עושה
היא השנה אם אינה עושה, לפיכך אין כת' שם שמחה. ד"א למה אין כת' שם שמחה, בשביל
שמתו בו המצריים... וכן את מוצא שאין כת' בעצרת אלא שמחה אחת... ולמה כת' שם שמחה
אחת, מפני שהתבואה נכנסת בפנים. ומאי טעמא אין כת' שם שתי שמחות, שכן את מוצא
שאעפ"י שנכנסה התבואה בפנים אבל פירות האילן נידונין, לפיכך אין כת' שם שמחה שנייה.
אבל בראש השנה אין כת' שם אפילו שמחה אחת. מאי טעמא, שהנפשות נידונות ומבקש אדם
נפשו יותר מממונו. אבל בחג לפי שנטלו הנפשות דימוס שלהם ביום הכיפורים... ועוד
שהתבואה ופירות האילן בפנים, לפיכך כת' שם שלש שמחות...
And you shall rejoice on your festival. You find three mentions of joy in
relation to Sukkot... But on Pesah only one. Why? Because on Pesah, the produce
is being judged (by God, whether it will be bountiful or not) and a person does
not know whether it will yield this year or not, therefore there is no (extra)
joy. Another explanation - because on Pesah the Egyptians died... And so you
find that on Shavuot there is only one (mention of) joy... because then the
produce is being harvested. But even so, the fruits of the trees are being
judged. On Rosh Hashanah there is no mention of joy, because then people
themselves are being judged, and a person worries more about his life than his
money. But on Sukkot, after people have been pardoned on Yom Kippur, and both
the produce in the fields and on the trees is stored away, there are three
So life is measured in terms of hurdles to be cleared, stressful periods to be survived, and then relief finally sets in and allows a person to be truly happy. But the midrash raises a different fear:
ד"א והיית אך שמח - מהו אך שמח? את מוצא אעפ"י שאדם שמח בעולם הזה, אין שמחתו
שלמה. היאך? בעולם הזה, אדם נולד לו בן והוא מיצר עליהם למר שהן בנים של קיימא או
אינם של קיימא, והילכך הוא מיצר. אבל לעתיד לבא, הקב"ה מבלע את המות, שנאמר ובלע
המות לנצח. אותה השעה שמחה שלימה, שנאמר אז ימלא שחוק פינו ולשונינו רנה.
Another way - "And you shall be only happy". What is "only happy"? You find
that, even when a person is happy in this world, his happiness is not complete.
Why? In this world, a person has sons, and he worries about them, whether they
will survive or not. But in the future, God will swallow up death... Then there
will be complete joy, as it says "Then will our mouth be filled with laughter
and our tongue with joy."
So, in fact, we are never clear of all the hurdles. Every occasion of joy hides within it the potential of grief. The fear of loss is everpresent. In the world as we know it, there is no room for true, unfettered joy.
Are we supposed to learn from this that we should never be happy, always waiting for the next calamity to arrive? The fact that this is, after all, a homily for Sukkot should hint to us that the answer is no. Though the first section of the midrash does indeed draw a graph marking the level of tension in life, which would seem to stabilize when we reach Sukkot, the second midrash makes it clear that with that attitude, joy on Sukkot is also impossible. But joy on Sukkot is the focus of the midrash. One should rejoice on Sukkot. Accepting with full awareness that this is not a complete, carefree joy. Just as on Pesach we should be mindful of the Egyptians who died, on Sukkot we should be mindful both of those who have died and of our own precarious position. And yet, rejoice.
One take on this kind of happiness is found in a song by Gilad Segev, about the good times he had with his brother, who was killed in the army. The lyrics are here, and you can hear the song on his site. The song is called עכשיו טוב, Now [things are] good. If I understand it properly, he means that there were moments when things were good, times he spent with his brother with no inkling of his impending death. And then things were good. If he can still reach back to those times, then the present can be a little good as well.
Malki also wrote a song about happiness. Without any illusions, it is a song that draws its strength not from the past, but from the present and the future. You are alive now. That is a reason to be happy. You can move forward. That is another reason.
At times, that is an vital message for me and for others. To look forward and be astounded by the future that lies ahead. I'm getting married soon. That's definitely a reason to be happy. But at other times - very often - it is in the past, in memories of Malki as my sister, as a real person who laughed and cried hugged me and got into fights with her mother and left a God-awful mess in her room, that is the only place to find joy.