Dr. Robert Schwartz
Dr. Robert SchwartzCourtesy
In the Hebrew month of Adar, we are instructed to feel celebratory joy. The month of Av is a time of mourning and sadness. Less clear is the appropriate emotional state for the Days of Awe. We are commanded to afflict ourselves on Yom Kippur. The Kotzker Rebbe exhorted us to weep tears, not tears of hopelessness, God forbid, but tears with the knowledge that God will hear and answer. Yet tears nonetheless. Hassidic groups add an undercurrent of joy to the solemnity in anticipation of the traditional outburst of dancing and song after the final shofar blast at the end of the fast.

Whatever the emphasis on negative feelings, all agree that the month-long process of purification has a positive side. But how should we express this positivity? Which emotions are most appropriate given the solemnity and awe? Simcha, with its connotation of exuberant celebration during joyous occasions, is ephemeral and relinquished after the event, as noted by the Vilna Gaon. Not quite right.

It's been confirmed that the Intuit Eskimos have 40-50 words for snow which are critical for their survival. There is snow to make water from and snow one sinks in. The Swedes, have 25 words for snow, including “april snow” which signifies impending floods. Judaism has many words for sin, as in the upcoming Viduy prayers of confession. I counted 24 in the breast-beating ‘warm-up act’– “We have transgressed, We have acted perfidiously…”. In the couplets that follow, “For the sin that….”, there are 44 mentioned, 51 if we count the additional 7 unspecified sins deserving various punishments. That’s 1 more than the maximum number of words the Eskimos have for snow! Since the Viduy is repeated 10 times, we are repeating negative terms 500 times. The response to sin is as important to Jews as snow is to Eskimos!

Contrary to its incorrect characterization as a guilt-obsessed religion, positivity is central to Jewish life and liturgy. A study comparing religious texts of major religions found that Judaism is the most positive. We are encouraged to “Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful song” (Psalms, 100:2), and reminded that we were punished “Because you did not serve God, your God, with joy and gladness of heart” (Deuteronomy, 28:47).

Cultivating positivity is as important as focusing on sin, so we might expect an equal or greater number of positive Hebrew words for happiness.

I found 12. Given this paucity, the meaning of each term is important to identify more precisely the appropriate emotions for the Days of Awe.

1. Simcha: Exuberant but transient happiness for weddings, etc.

2. Gila: Outbursts of joy; transient

3. Pitzcha: Bursting into song; momentary

4. Ranen: So overcome as to shout in joy; momentary

5. Sasson: Unexpected happiness arising suddenly; momentary

6. Chedva: High-spirited mirth of togetherness

7. Tzahala: Elated happiness associated with dancing, but also whinnying

8. T’rua: Joy expressed in a shout, as in the sound of shofar

9. Orah: Radiant happiness that uplifts the soul

10. Rina: Singing; refreshing joy

11. Osher: Deeper, abiding happiness; yearning for inner peace and meaningful life

12. Ditza: Sublime joy; dancing

The first seven terms for happy emotion­–simcha, gila, pitzcha, ranen, sasson, chedva, and especially tzahala are not fitting for the occasion. Simcha, as noted, connotes lively, but transient exuberance. We don’t internalize intense wedding joy and dance all week. Gila, pitzcha, ranen, and sasson are sudden outbursts, not sustained states of mind. Chedva’s socially oriented mirth doesn’t fit with connecting to the ultimate Other, God. Tzahala’s association with excess elation and whinnying obviously rules it out.

Rather, we should strive to experience the last five: t’rua, orah, rina, osher, and ditza.

The joy of t’rua is receptive as we listen to the pleading, awe-inspiring cries that signify hope and trust in forthcoming forgiveness and redemption. Feeling the shofar blasts in the body deepens the experience.

Light is a traditional symbol of God’s presence. With “God in the field”, we can let the radiant joy of Orah uplift our spirits and souls.

Rina, the inspiring songs and sublime melodies of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Tov prayers, progressively elevate us to a refreshing and revitalizing renewal.

The most encompassing emotion that captures the spirit of the Days of Awe is osher, with its focus on the deep, abiding yearning for inner peace and a life of meaning. The songs, the sounds of the shofar, and the uplifting light all move us heavenward to this lofty state.

During Elul and culminating at the end of Yom Kippur, after fasting and basking in the removal of sins, we feel elevated to a high level of spiritual purity and profound connection with God. Feeling this sublime state, we soon will return to daily life, but now with a purified soul and body. We will soon return to physicality by eating, but we first re-engage with the body in ecstatic dance to express the sublime holiness of a purified body and soul. This is ditza.

I have felt these emotions to varying degrees, and I am sure many have as well. The important message of defining and contemplating the nuances of these terms is to clearly target, cultivate, and experience the optimal emotional state. We don’t anticipate dancing in the aisles or bursting out with loud, joyful exultations. But we can better envision the light of orah, more mindfully and fully express our rina as we sing, and reach deeper into our mind, heart, and soul to find true osher. Finally, we can let our spirit soar with dancing with ditza, with its sublime state of purity and closeness to God. May we all be blessed with abundant t’rua, orah, rina, osher and diza during the upcoming Yom Tovim.

Robert M. Schwartz, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and former assistant professor who did pioneering research on positive and negative emotions. In addition to scientific articles, he has published social and political commentaries in the Christian Science Monitor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jerusalem Post, Arutz Sheva, the American Thinker, and others.