A Path to Rejoicing Amidst the Darkness: Re-igniting the Blessing of Jewish Living

Austin Zoot is the Rabbi/Educator at Valley Temple in Wyoming, Ohio. For more content from Rabbi Zoot, visit his website, austinmzoot.com.

A Jew never struggles alone. It is one of the great gifts of being part of a faith community. Over the centuries, we have perfected systems of support to help lift our spirits, to bring us together in times of hardship.

Sadly, we’ve needed all the strategies we can get lately. The current war in Israel and the resulting spike in antisemitism around the world has left so many of us reaching in the darkness for our peers, those who understand what it is like to be us. The war began within days of the 5th anniversary of the Tree of Life shooting, the most public show of violence against our community in recent memory. But the memories of all forms of other atrocities aren’t nearly far enough in the rearview mirror, with broken branches of our family tree at every turn through each of our personal histories.

All of this would be hard enough if we weren’t also facing the largest divestment in religious communal engagement in American history. More young people in this country than ever before are asking the question, “why is it worth it to be part of a religious community?” And for many of our young people, the doom and gloom of constant sadness and grief make actively engaging in Judaism a lesser and lesser priority.

During my eight years living in Cincinnati, the largest events I can remember are the ones that bring people together to share trauma. We go to vigils and rallies, galvanized by the poignancy of pain, desperately wanting to feel included in a larger whole. There is a nearly palpable desire to feel the warmth of community, to feel connected to an infrastructure larger than ourselves in moments when light seems so distant. 

I find myself caught in-between: the beauty of community in times of struggle is soul-enriching, but why would someone want to cast their lot with a people so well-acquainted with sorrow? It isn’t exactly an uplifting sales pitch: “We’re excellent at making suffering feel communal”? “Join us for a less terrible time”?

Despite our propensity to show up most enthusiastically in the wake of tragedy, Judaism is not a religion of sadness or despair. Instead, it is a faith of joy and celebration, of honoring the beauty in the world and celebrating the cycle of life in shared community. To be a Jew is to find the wonder in the world, even at its most intimidating. And we would be well served to re-center our experience of Judaism to include the positive, the uplifting, and the soul-filling, in addition to the inevitability of life’s challenges. 

No Jewish ritual encapsulates the joy of our people quite like the weekly celebration of Shabbat. Ahad Ha’am once famously said that “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Because no matter what the week has brought, we are given a weekly opportunity to remember the majesty of the world that God has invited us into, and we are given the opportunity to celebrate that beauty in sacred community.

In these dark times, we need to remember what it means to bring light to the world and to one another. In this age of constant reporting and fear-mongering, we need a reminder of what it means to step outside the daily grind and cherish the chance to rest, to connect, to heal. 

Over the next three weeks, I want to share three Shabbat experiences that help to lift up not only what it means to be an American Jew in our world today, but to re-contextualize that identity in the form of positivity and joy. Assimilation has shown us that we can live our lives without Judaism if we want to. But when we do, we turn down a magnificent invitation to deeper meaning and deeper connection to something truly special.

Each week, we sing, “Those who keep Shabbat will rejoice in Your dominion.” No, not every week feels like a celebration. But that is the beauty of Shabbat. Whether it was a fantastic week or a frantic one, whether we had our best days or our hardest, Shabbat is always just around the corner, ready to give us the breath of fresh air we so desperately need. Shabbat gives us the chance to put all that has come before it away, not forever, but for a short while, allowing for space for other things. Because when we make space for Shabbat, we allow the holiness of God to rest in our midst.