Courtesy: Rabbi Shloma Majeski
Joy is important, not only as the antithesis of depression, but as a fundamental element of our Divine service in its own right. Just as the love of G-d and the fear of G-d are necessary for our Divine service to be complete, so too, joy is essential to our spiritual development. All the mitzvos that a person performs, and everything that he does as an expression of his connection to G-d, should be inspired with joy.
This is reflected in Psalms, which tells us: “Serve G-d with joy; come before Him in celebration” – celebration being a medium that allows us to come before G-d and feel His presence. The Rambam clearly spells out this concept, writing:
The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfillment of the mitzvos and the love of G-d… is a great service…. There is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before G-d.
Similarly, with regard to prophecy, the Rambam mentions several prerequisites for prophecy that reflect the epitome of personal development: “Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind he overcomes his natural inclinations at all times.”
Nevertheless, he emphasizes that “prophecy cannot rest on a person when he is sad and languid, but only when he is happy.” The experience of prophecy involves the Divine Presence manifesting itself within a person, and this is possible only when the person is happy.
This concept is also reflected with regard to the Beis HaMikdash, the permanent home for G-d’s Presence. It is written, “Strength and gladness are in His place.” His place, the Beis HaMikdash, was characterized by happiness, as evidenced by the joyous songs that the Levites would sing and play on their instruments.
Similarly, with regard to time: Shabbos, the holiest day of the week, and the festivals, days set aside for their holiness, are days of happiness and rejoicing, for happiness brings us closer to G-d.
Not only is simchah an important feature in a Jew’s service of G-d, but in a sense, serving G-d with simchah can be considered higher than all other paths of Divine service. Let us share a story told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. Once, on the day before Yom Kippur, a Jewish innkeeper living near Berditchev was arrested by the landowner on whose property the Jew’s inn was located.
The Jew had not paid his rent for a long period of time. He was not trying to steal; he just did not have the money. Business was not that good; he had a large family; and on the day that the rent was due, he simply did not have the money.
In those days, the landowners were very powerful. In their own territories, they ruled like kings. So after waiting several days for his money and issuing a number of warnings, the landowner locked up this Jewish innkeeper and his family on the day before Yom Kippur. He told the Jewish community that unless they present him with the overdue rent – 300 rubles, no small sum of money in those days – the family would rot away in a dungeon for the rest of their lives.
One of the greatest mitzvos is pidyon sh’vuyim, the redemption of captives. And so, one of the chassidim in Berditchev took it upon himself to collect the money to redeem this family. Although the sum was well beyond his means, he wanted to make this effort because he knew that the lives of the family depended on it. They had no one else to help them, and unless he was able to amass the money, they would stay in the landowner’s dungeon until they died.
He began collecting. Since it was the day before Yom Kippur, the people were especially sensitive and gave generously. But they did not give enough. It is not that they did not want to – just as the innkeeper had not had the money to pay his rent, they also did not have that much to give. And so, after collecting for several hours, the man had managed to gather less than fifty rubles.
He knew he needed three hundred, and he realized that at this pace he would never get the money before Yom Kippur and might never get the money at all. He decided to take a rasher course of action, and headed to the neighborhood where the free-thinking Jews lived. These were younger people, who worked with the non-Jewish landlords. They were wealthier, but their concern for their fellow Jews and for Jewish practice was less. Still, it was the day before Yom Kippur, and there would be no better time to approach them.
When he reached that neighborhood, he saw a hall filled with many people. There were Jews sitting there gambling, playing cards. The fact that in a few hours Jews all over the world would be saying Kol Nidrei did not appear to interest them. They were interested in playing cards, drinking vodka and gambling.
The chassid saw that the tables were filled with money. On any one of the tables there was enough money to redeem the family. He approached one of the tables and told the people, “Tonight is Yom Kippur, the time when G-d forgives everyone. Why not prepare for the day? I have something constructive for you to do with your money. A family is in terrible need. Instead of wasting your money gambling, give it away for a good purpose.”
At first, the people just ignored him. But the chassid was persistent. Finally, one of them told him, “You know what? You see this vodka standing here on the table? It is finif un ninesiker.” Finif un ninesiker means 95%. The bottle was 95% alcohol. That is not 95 proof, that is 190 proof. The man filled an ordinary drinking glass and told him, “If you drink a glass of this finif un ninesiker, we will collect 100 rubles for your cause from our table alone.”
The reaction of the chassid was, “How can I drink a glass of whisky that is 190 proof? In a couple of hours, it will be Kol Nidrei. After a full glass of this, I will be finished; there is no way I will be able to concentrate on my prayers.” But then a second thought came to his mind, “If they give me a hundred rubles, I will have a third of the amount I need to save this family. What should I be concerned with? Having a more spiritual Yom Kippur myself or doing everything I can to save the family? Who knows how long it will take to collect one hundred rubles any other way?” And so, he made the decision to drink the glass of vodka.
He downed the glass; and the gamblers kept their word and gave him the money. Afterwards, he wobbled over to the next table and spoke to the people, “You see your friends, they just gave me a 100 rubles to help a poor family. Why do you not do the same?”
The people told him, “You know what? We will do the same, but you will have to do the same, too. If you drink another glass of finif un ninesiker, we will also give you 100 rubles.”
The chassid began to plead with them, “Please, tonight is Kol Nidrei. As it is, I am going to be dizzy tonight, but if I drink another glass, I am just going to be out. You are going to give me the money anyway, so why make me do this?”
But the people demanded their entertainment. “Listen, either drink it or good-bye.” Again the chassid thought, “What is more important: my spiritual experience on Yom Kippur or the fact that I can get this family out of the dungeon earlier?” He did not have to think long. His entire life was directed towards others, not to himself. And so he gave them their entertainment and drank the glass of vodka. They gave him the hundred rubles, and everyone was happy.
Afterwards, he wobbled over to a third table and asked them whether they would contribute to the cause. He explained that now he needed less than a hundred rubles. It was just hours before Yom Kippur, and they could make it possible for a poor family to spend the holiday outside a dungeon.
They were not interested in his explanations, but they were prepared to continue the fun. So they made him the same offer: one hundred rubles for a glass of finif un ninesiker. He did not have to think much at all. Particularly after two glasses of vodka, it was very clear to him: “Forget about a more spiritual Yom Kippur; think about the family. With this glass, you can get them out today.” He drank the third glass and they gave him the 100 rubles. Now he had all the money he needed to get the family out.
He asked the gamblers a favor, “Please, can someone help me get over to the home of this landowner so that I can give him the money?” The spirit of Yom Kippur must have indeed been in the air, for one of the gamblers excused himself from his company and drove the chassid to the landowner’s home in his carriage.
The landowner was not happy to see a drunken man at his door, but he was very happy to get his three hundred rubles. After counting the money, he ordered that the family be released. Naturally, they were ecstatic. The innkeeper ran over to the chassid and hugged him, thanking him profusely. The chassid was not interested in receiving thanks; he did not see anything special in what he had done. He asked the innkeeper one favor. “I will not be able to get to the shul by myself. Could you help get me there?”
Needless to say, the innkeeper obliged and brought the chassid to the shul. There he lay down on one of the benches. He knew that he would not be able to pray, but he wanted at least to sleep in the atmosphere of Yom Kippur.
Soon people started coming to shul for Kol Nidrei. Everyone took a book of Tehillim in hand and prayed. As the din of their prayers began to rise, the chassid was aroused. He looked up and saw the ark open and people taking out Torah scrolls. Although this is also done before the Kol Nidrei prayers, the most normal association a person would have with Torah scrolls being taken out at night, particularly when he is intoxicated, is the celebration of Simchas Torah.
And so our chassid jumped up from his bench, ran up to the bimah, the platform on which everyone was standing, and began shouting “Atah Horeisa,” the prayer recited before the Simchas Torah Hakkofos. Everyone looked at him in amazement. “What is he doing? Doesn’t he know tonight is Yom Kippur?! In a few moments we will be reciting Kol Nidrei. What kind of joke is he playing? Is he drunk?” They were about to grab him and throw him out of the shul.
But the Rebbe, R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev turned around and said, “Leave him alone. He has the right to do what he is doing.” R. Levi Yitzchok was a tzaddik, a completely righteous and spiritual person. He knew everything the chassid had gone through.
He began to explain to the congregation that the holidays of Tishrei follow in sequence. It is not mere coincidence that Rosh HaShanah is followed by Yom Kippur, and then by Sukkos, Shemini Atzeres, and Simchas Torah. A spiritual initiative begins on Rosh HaShanah and continues and intensifies until it reaches its peak on Simchas Torah.
“This person,” he said, pointing to the drunken chassid, “has just displayed tremendous mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice). He sacrificed his Yom Kippur experience to save a Jewish family. But he did not give up Yom Kippur; he sprang over it. His self-sacrifice enabled him to bypass all the intermediate levels and reach the level of Simchas Torah, the zenith of our Divine service throughout Tishrei.”
There are a lot of things we can learn from this story. One of the concepts relates to the subject of our discussion, the preeminence of the service of simchah, joy. As we explained, the holidays of the month of Tishrei are like a spiritual ladder, with each holiday serving as a stepping stone to the next. What is the last holiday, the highest rung reached during the month? Simchas Torah.
On Simchas Torah, we do not make a special increase in the time we spend studying; basically, what we do is sing and dance with the Torah scrolls. Simchah, joy, is the main feature of this holiday.
Although Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe – the holiest days of the year – Simchas Torah is the climax of the Tishrei experience, indicating that serving G-d with joy is the highest rung on this ladder of spiritual connection to G-d.
This may be difficult for us to understand: On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, a person must seek to penetrate to his spiritual core and arouse the G-dliness that lies at the essence of his being. We have no difficulty understanding that this is a powerful spiritual experience. It is much harder to understand that singing and dancing are spiritual, and indeed so spiritual that the rejoicing of Simchas Torah surpasses the soul-stirring prayers of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
The resolution of this difficulty depends on a fundamental concept: that the essence of the Jews’ connection to G-d is bittul, selflessness, feeling at one with G-d. Bittul means not seeing oneself as a separate, independent entity, and G-d as another separate, independent entity, but rather recognizing that all existence – including one’s own self – is a manifestation and an expression of G-dliness.
This changes a person’s conception of who he is. Instead of understanding his true self as his individual identity, he appreciates his soul, the G-dliness that is within him. This also gives us a new understanding of mitzvos: every mitzvah that we perform brings this inner oneness to the surface and intensifies it. Instead of being a checklist of how many mitzvos we have performed and how much Torah we have studied, our Divine service becomes a process leading us away from yeshus, the awareness of ourselves as an independent entity, bringing us to bittul, selfless union with G-d.
In a certain way, simchah is the strongest, most powerful demonstration of this oneness. When a person is b’simchah, he rises above self-concern; he does not think of himself at all. He is able to recognize that there is something deeper and greater beyond him – G-d. And he can become aware that G-dliness is within him.
Simchah allows for the most complete level of connection to G-d. When a person does a good deed, he does not necessarily transcend his ego. For example, when a person gives charity, it is true that he is giving away his money, but he may not be letting go entirely. Often the person will feel satisfaction at having given. His sense of self still figures into the equation.
The same is true for all the other mitzvos; they do not necessarily take a person totally beyond himself. This can even be true of the mitzvah of loving G-d. Although this love should be an actual feeling of connection – not merely an abstract conception – just as in every relationship, the person involved feels his own identity.
In contrast, simchah, by definition, requires a person to go beyond himself. The only way a person can truly experience simchah is if he completely and totally lets go of himself. Unless he is willing to surrender himself in this manner, he will always have things that are weighing him down. As long as a person thinks about himself, his concerns – whether material or spiritual – will prevent him from being b’simchah. Only when a person leaves his self behind and connects to G-d can he experience true joy.
This relates to the renowned statement of our Rabbis, simchah poretz geder, “joy breaks through barriers.” When a person is happy, his joy fills him with energy and enables him to break through any barriers that stand in his way.
For this reason, we find that when people are happy, they can overcome certain weaknesses with which they could not deal under ordinary circumstances. Everyone has limitations and weaknesses that prevent him from making real progress. Being b’simchah enables him to go beyond those weaknesses. Since simchah brings out the deeper and true dimension of one’s identity, the essence is not confined to the limitations of one’s ego.
We see examples of this in history. One of the things kings would do on the day of their coronation or at a royal wedding was to pardon prisoners. What connection does pardoning prisoners have with a wedding or a coronation? The idea is that these are times that the king is b’simchah, and so the blocks created by the prisoner’s past conduct no longer exist for him. Yes, the prisoner did something wrong, but when there is happiness in the air, there can be no obstacles hindering the inner relationship a king shares with his subjects. And therefore he pardons them.
Simchah generates energy; it pushes us forward and gives us a sense of productivity and growth. It does not mean that we will merely forget about our problems and pretend they do not exist. It means that we are given new energies that enable us to overcome any problems that we may confront.
The medical community is also beginning to recognize the power of joy. Researchers have discovered that even physiological problems and diseases can be more easily overcome with simchah. They call it “healing with laughter.” There are stories of people who had cancer for which they had been treated without success. Nevertheless, over time, when these people were put into an intensely joyous frame of mind, their cancer disappeared!
Often the body possesses the resources to heal itself, but depression hampers the body and prevents these resources from working. Simchah, by contrast, stimulates energy and gives the body the opportunity to overcome infirmity.
Surely, this concept applies with regard to the functioning of our minds and hearts. Simchah does not merely transfer our attention away from our difficulties; it arouses unlimited inner energy that enables us to break through problems, weaknesses and limitations. It stirs our creativity and gives us the potential to live a productive life, continually advancing to higher peaks.