If G‑d didn’t command me to feel joy, would I?

Research professor, lecturer and author Brene Brown did extensive research on emotions. She found the emotion people are most afraid of is joy. She asked thousands of parents to think about the moment when they tuck their child in and hover just for a moment. Right after joy, they all had the same experience: anxiety filled them, knowing that something could happen to their child. The mind instinctively starts thinking worst-case scenarios, which leads to that sinking sensation in one’s gut we are all too familiar with.

Joy feels scary. When I realize how deeply I have allowed someone to touch me or how much I have opened myself up to an experience, I feel like I have spread my soul wide like eagle wings. I am left exposed. There is a part of me that is afraid to feel it, lest it be “too good” to be true. Lest feeling it would somehow cast an “evil eye” on my joy. I must protect it with my guilt, my fear, my shame, my mental preparation for the worst.

Exile has been a rough path, and we are deprograming and retuning our internal system to a new way of living. Living geulah, or redemptive living, means living from a place of emotional freedom.

Brown explains that there is an alternative to watching the worst-case scenarios of all the ways your joy could be stolen. That is gratitude—to be grateful that I have this moment and all the good it holds.

Gratitude is such a central idea in Judaism. In fact, the word Yehudi, “Jew,” comes from the Hebrew word for gratitude.

I’m reminded of that as I run to the fruit store between classes and hold a persimmon in my hand. A new fruit. For a moment, my life is not about the next text coursing through the air faster than light to keep my dopamine going. It isn’t about my endless “To Do” list either. It’s just about how sweet this moment is.

I wash the fruit and sit in my classroom waiting for my students to arrive. I hold the bright-orange persimmon in my right hand and say the Shehecheyanu ... “Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this place.”

My shoulders drop and a wave of relief washes over me. I don’t need to protect my life. I don’t need to be mentally prepared for every bad thing that could happen. I can sink into the joy that is this moment and say, “Thank you for allowing me to arrive here.”

Every single week, every Shabbat, we are asked to put on our finest clothing, to set the table with the finest linens, to sit and appreciate all the blessings from the previous week.

Every year, on Tu B’Shevat, we have a mini-holiday simply to celebrate the trees. This is not even the time of year when we enjoy the fruits; they have not even begun to grow yet. It’s just the time when the potential for new growth begins and is made possible.

The most vulnerable moment of the entire process is the beginning. And yet we stop and celebrate the joy of that infinitely vulnerable moment of new life and the potential of what is.

How much safer it would be to celebrate at harvest time. Just think of everything that could go wrong in a new plant’s life, and yet, that is when we celebrate the holiday of the trees and say the Shehecheyanu blessing on a new fruit.

We are asked to do the mitzvahs with joy. Joy is not sprinkled on top of our mitzvahs; it is the oxygen of the mitzvah. Joy is what takes it from being an act and makes it a moment of infinite, eternal connection. The great Kabbalistic master—the Ari Hakodesh—accredited all his spiritual success to the joy he had when performing mitzvahs.

We all have emotional homes—our “go to” emotional reactions. We are wired to go from joy to fear of loss so quickly. It’s so easy to go through life with my fists clenched, waiting for the moment when some tragedy may strike. But G‑d is asking me to stop holding my breath in anticipation of that and instead start laughing. To start feeling all the good that is available right now.

And it’s not about living in denial. You see, so many aspects of life are temporary. There are two responses we can have to it. One is to squeeze on tight to reality, looking for every way to protect this moment and strangle the life out of it with our fear; to have endless nights full of “what if’s” and the stomach drops that accompany the realization of how precious someone is to you.

Thirty seconds into married life, I saw a teacher of mine on the street and asked him for a blessing for a long, happy marriage. He saw the intensity in my eyes and responded wisely in his thick Israeli accent. “Anxiety about living stops you from being alive.”

But the second approach is the Torah’s approach: to take a moment to stop and allow yourself to be open to feeling the joy that is in your life. Create an emotional home of gratitude where you can experience joy long enough and consistently enough that you let your fists loosen and your hearts open. In this place, G‑d can hold our vulnerability while we allow ourselves to experience real joy, guilt-free.

So I try to stand by my Shabbat candles and watch their glow. I put on my Shabbat finest and feel the luxury of the best fabric touching my bare skin, even while a part of me says: “But it might get stained; it’s best to leave it in plastic wrap.”

The days of bubble-wrapping my life for my emotions are over. Part of life is loss. And I can’t let that stop me from living. Shehecheyanu, thank you G‑d for bringing me to this moment. This moment where I am commanded to feel the joy.