lulav and etrog illustrator

You shall hold a festival for Ha-Shem, your God, (for) seven days
…for Ha-Shem, your God, will bless all your crops and all your undertakings,
and you shall have only joy [ach 

“On [Sukkot], and only on this festival, we are commanded to be happy – not just happy, but as the text in Deuteronomy [1] explains, “ach sameach;” exclusively happy.” [2]

While this Torah-text is speaking of joy as a result of abundance, Torah and Yoga both also teach that a truer spiritual joy occurs when we are ecstatically happy regardless of outer conditions.

Yoga speaks of multiple paths to God; one might say, to the realization of God’s Presence, our eternal place in It and Its in us.

The intellectual path is Jñana Yoga — the contemplation of ideas. The Rambam is a perfect example of this, particularly in his “Moreh Nevuchim/Guide for the Perplexed” (which should really be translated “Guide for the Entangled“). Contemplating ideas, we change our viewpoint, our personal perspective, on the events that occur in and around us, until a change in consciousness itself occurs.

However, there is another path, too: the devotional path; the path of love. In Yoga, this is “Bhakti Yoga.” One can’t say that there is no contemplation of ideas in this path. Rather, that the main characteristic of this path is love and joy — particularly as evidenced by music and dance taken to ecstatic levels. This is the path of the Vaishnavas of India, one branch of which is known in the West as ISKCON or the “Hare Krishnas,” the Sufis, some of the biblical  prophets, and the Hasidim.

“We sat there for hours chanting Hare Krsna and other sacred mantras and playing music. As I became absorbed in the spiritual sound, I felt total relief, as if a weight had been lifted off me. I had taken a dip in the ocean of transcendental sound — and felt refreshed.” [3] 

Both are legitimate paths to the experience of God.

“On the intellectual path to God-realization the predominant factor is knowing and understanding. Here, on the path of devotion, the main factor is feeling. The feeling of love is the vehicle that allows a man [or woman] to advance on this path. Love, emotion, happiness, kindness and surrender are the qualities of heart which sustain the path of devotion. Love increases and as it progresses, it leaves behind the fields of lesser happiness and gains ground in more stable and valuable regions of happiness. The path of devotion is a path of happiness, a path of love, the path through the qualities of the heart.” [4]

Some years ago, I regularly led services in a nursing home in the Bronx. At one time, the home had serviced a largely Orthodox clientele. There was an actual synagogue built into the building, including an Ark, sifrei Torah, memorial plaques, pews and siddurim. The room was not used for anything else. The entire home was strictly kosher.

By the time I came there, the Jewish population had declined greatly. The food was no longer kosher. The attendance at services was down to a handful of people, most of whom were physically impaired. A few were even cognitively impaired, as well. It was a group I could speak to, knowing that there was much comprehension of what I was saying. But it was not a group that could express themselves by singing or dancing. The room tended to be very quiet when services were going on.

One Simchat Torah (around 1995), I removed a sefer Torah from the Ark and danced down the aisle, making sure to bring the Torah near to each person so that they could kiss it. I’ve been to large-scale Simchat Torah celebrations, where hundreds of people danced with Torahs — in some cases, even out into the street! Here, in that nursing home, it was only me dancing and singing. Otherwise, it was quiet.

I don’t remember having been unusually unhappy, but activities in any nursing home can somewhat dampen one’s spirits — especially when only a few people are attending.

Yet, one year, as I danced around the room with the sefer Torah in my arms, I suddenly felt myself filled with a joy beyond my own. It was as if a feeling of gloom, of limitation in the room, lifted off of me like the handkerchief of a magician being lifted, revealing an object that wasn’t there before (or like such an object disappearing). There was nothing planned about it. It was sudden and surprising, and stayed with me for hours afterwards.

There, in a quiet, basement room in the Bronx, with a handful of people approaching the end of their lives, dancing (in my clumsy way) with a sefer Torah in my arms, I felt more joy than the greatest abundance of the world could ever give me.

I believe that the others in the room felt it, too.


[1] D’varim/Deut. 16:15


[3Masla, Robert and Goldman, Matthew; Windows to the Spiritual World: Spiritrealism and the Art of Puskar; Transcendental Art Associates (publisher); © 1997 by Matthew Goldman and Robert Masla
(“Puskar” is the name Matthew Goldman was given when he was initiated into ISKCON — the International Society for Krishna Consciousness — of which he has remained a member for almost 50 years). The chanting and dancing of the members reminds me very much of the descriptions of the singing and dancing of the Biblical prophets and their disciples.)

[4] Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; The Science of Being and Art of Living; © 1966; p. 290