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Positive Judaism: How Jokes and Wisdom Inspire Better Living

Have you heard the one about the U.S. Open and Yom Kippur? You're about to.

Darren Levine: Humor relates directly to positive of Judaism because humor is one of the 24 strengths in the category in the inventory of strengths and characteristics. We know that humor, which makes us laugh and we desire to be around people who are funny because it raises our senses of positive emotion, and that adds a lot of value. The U.S. Open and Yom Kippur generally fall during the same season of time. Yom Kippur is the day of forgiveness. It happens in the very early fall and the U.S. Open happens in the late summer to early fall and it just so happened that one year the men’s final and Yom Kippur happened on the same exact day. And so this child said to his father, “Dad, you know I can’t miss the U.S. Open. It’s the most important tennis match of the entire year.” And the father said, “Well, that’s what video recordings are for.” And the child said, “You mean we can tape Yom Kippur?” 

We can always choose to live with a pessimistic mindset. A lot of people ask: Judaism and positivity, can they sync together? And they can, despite the fact that individuals have faced anti-Semitism and oppression and there have been many times in Jewish history, like the pogroms when Jewish individuals and Jewish communities were oppressed and that is true for lots of different groups. But at the core of religious thought it is about resilience and it is about hope, it’s about joy, it’s about positive living, it’s about spirituality, deepening relationships and seeking to have a positive impact on one’s life, on their community and their family and in the world.

Hatikvah is the Jewish national anthem. Hatikvah means 'the hope' and at the core of the Jewish mindset for 3000 years has been hope. I’ll tell you a story about hope, which is attributed to the Maggid of Dubno. Maggid of Dubno tells a story of a king who had a perfect diamond and the king loved this diamond and he would marvel at this diamond every single night. But one day he dropped this diamond and when he picked it up he noticed that there was a crack from the crown to the base of this diamond and the king was crestfallen. He called out to all of the master craftsman in the entire kingdom to come and see if they could repair this, but one after the other said to the king, “King, once a crack is in a diamond it cannot be repaired.” Days later a very humble jeweler came to the palace gates and said, “I would like to see the diamond.” And the king welcomed him and said, “Humble jeweler, the greatest craftsman in all of this land have tried to fix this diamond and each have said it’s impossible to repair.” But this humble jeweler said, “I would like to have a chance.” And so the king gave him the diamond and under the eyes of a watchful guard, for the next few weeks, this jeweler got to work.

He returned to the kingdom and he presented the king with the diamond. And the king took it out and looked at it and said, “Fool, there is still a crack in my diamond. Send this man to the gallows.” But the humble jeweler just stood there calmly and said, “King, turn the diamond over.” And when the king turned the diamond over he noticed that the jeweler had placed two petals at the crown of the diamond and together this crack, with those petals, no longer was broken but it now formed this beautiful rose and now the king had a diamond that was more perfect and more beautiful than before. The moral of this story is that we can choose any day to think of our lives as broken, only seeing the cracks, but with a little dose of hope and choosing to be optimistic, we can turn any crack into petals and shift the way that we think about brokenness into perfection, and turn our lives into beautiful flowers. That we get from Judaism and that we get from wise teachings. They come from Jewish past and Jewish lore that inspire us to live our lives in the best way for ourselves, for our families and for others. 

Darren Levine is the founding rabbi of Tamid, The Downtown Synagogue in New York City, which is guided by Positive Judaism. In an open letter earlier this year, Levine defined Positive Judaism as a spiritual life that "expands the mind, deepens personal character, strengthens community, improves the world, and adds joy and optimism to everyday living." Because of pop-culture stereotypes and the Jewish history persecution, people may not instantly think that Judaism and positivity are in sync, but Levine contents that joy and hope have been at the heart of the Jewish mindset for 3,000 years. You can choose to look at history with pessimism and negativity, says Levine, or you can instead find beauty in brokenness and turn it into jokes, positive emotion, and wisdom. "In the 21st century, it is the People that will or will not choose to be Jewish... Historical memory, Israel, the threat of anti-semitism and are not strong enough motivators for Jewish engagement. We need something new and serious and Positive Judaism is one new construct." Here, Levine shares a timely joke for Yom Kippur, and shares a teaching about hope and perspective.

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