Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – March 5, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Good evening and welcome back. We’re on the air every Sunday from 6-7pm on WEVD 1050 AM. It’s been exciting in the few last weeks taking such interesting calls from you, and I really appreciate and thank the listening audience for your provocative, stimulating and challenging dialogue.
To find a topic for tonight’s show, as usual, I look to Divine Providence in my own life, different things that happen during the day, or calls and emails that I get during the week to inspire me with a topic to discuss rather than coming up with something of my own.
So the topic that I’d like to discuss is “Joy.” And the reason for it is that we are now in the Hebrew month of Adar on the Jewish calendar. The month of Adar is considered to be the happiest month in the Jewish calendar as it contains Purim, the happiest day of the year. Purim is essentially a day of joy, which in Hebrew the word is “simcha.” I was looking around for different words with which to translate the word “simcha”—exuberance, happiness, gladness—but I think joy is the right word.
Friends of mine asked me the question this past week, “How do you bring joy into your life if you’re not in the mood for it? Can you just package it? Can you have joy on demand?”
Many of us have many very legitimate reasons for being somewhat despondent, and when you’re in that state of mind, we’re dealing with emotions here, how can one elicit joy? I thought it was a very good topic to discuss, because people often take for granted the issue of joy. You find people who are very joyous just naturally and others that seemingly are much more somber and serious.
So I’ll pose several questions on the air and I’ll address some of them. I’d love to hear from all of you out there so I invite you to call in with your questions and ideas.
Is joy genetic? If someone is a joyous person, or the antithesis of being sad, is it genetic or is it acquired? Can you do something in your life, any methods or exercises, that can bring joy and happiness into your life?
As I said, the antithesis of joy is sadness, and these emotions are forces in our lives that have a very strong impact. I believe that some of these emotions are critical in our own growth and healing process. There’s the Patch Adams story of how laughter can aid healing. I think joy is one of those underused tools that, by learning how to access it, can really help us in our lives.
Many of us feel that we are victims of circumstances. If something in our daily life brings some joy in our lives, great, we thank G-d for it, but is there something that we can actually do, that we can actually initiate, that can help us bring joy?
So question number one is, is joy genetic? You do find people who are just naturally joyous, who have a kind of laid-back attitude where it’s just good to be in their presence, and then there are others who may be very serious, but at the same time, they always bring us down.
At the outset, let me give an overview from a Torah perspective about what this concept called joy, simcha, is, and whether it is considered genetic— nature vs. nurture.
We can learn a lot by observing children at their quintessential selves, because before children have been affected by society, parents, and community, they can sometimes give us a specimen of what our lives would be like before we were abused or hurt or disappointed.
Children have natural cheer. They have a natural, enchanted air about them; some would call it naivete because they haven’t yet tasted of the pains of life, but you can also say that it does definitely reflect on a certain natural state that we all have within us.
When does a child cease to be consistently cheerful? When a child first gets disappointed: the first grief or the first loss or the first disappointment. I would say, to put it in more cosmic terms, that you experience sadness the first time there’s some deception, some type of split in a person’s life. Sadness for the loss, sadness for what could have been, sadness for not getting what you want. But naturally speaking on a cosmic level, a soul, a spiritual entity or spiritual state, where you’re in complete touch with who you are and what you’re supposed to be doing, should be literally a seamless flow of joy.
In other words, from that perspective, joy is a completely natural state. It’s not even an expression of a spiritual type of existence, it’s equated with life itself. Like a fish swimming in its own waters has that type of natural cheer.
Now, living in a world of so much grief and pain, when we see someone joyous, it’s like a novelty for us, an exotic experience. But for someone who has that flow, that seamlessness, where there isn’t a dichotomy in life of what you want and what you expect or a deception of different forms, then joy comes very naturally, and that’s why children are joyous.
So their naivete in a sense serves them well because they haven’t yet tasted from what it means to live in a world of deception. Once they get those disappointments, the joy begins to bottle up to the point where it becomes so locked up for some, that it can’t even be accessed again.
It’s critical to see joy from this perspective, because if joy is an acquired state, something that you develop at some point (later) in your life, then a very strong argument can be made that once you’ve lost a reason to be happy, or you’ve suffered grief, there’s no way of reconnecting.
However, if joy is a natural state of feeling a certain sense of belonging, a feeling within that you are important and you have a value, then it’s just a question of reclaiming that right, not creating something new.
So the argument that I’m submitting to all of you is, that joy is something that each of us has in our hearts. Even if you are the saddest person and you haven’t smiled in years, you have a joy, a gladness in your heart, that may in some way be blocked or sealed away because you may not feel that there’s any reason to access it, but it’s there, and the key is learning how to dig into those reservoirs and draw from those wells of joy.
Of course I’ll try to discuss some of the methods of how one does that, but I wanted first to establish a psychological basis for the concept that joy is within us. Psychology uses the words today, “inner child.” From a Torah point of view that’s nothing new. The inner child has always been a reality and the concept is essentially that the natural cheer, the natural spirituality, the enchantment and magic of child life is maintained throughout our lives.
However, once we mature into adults, the casings and personalities of our lives harden, and within them lies locked that child, that cheer, the natural exuberance of childhood. To truly live a meaningful life, a life of purpose and fulfillment, we must learn how to bridge the two. I’m not suggesting that we turn the clocks back and turn into children playing in sandlots, but if we can find some way of bridging that free abandon, that natural flow of a child with the seasoning and experience of an adult, then you’ve got yourself a winning package.
I would even say that our search for happiness, in different words, is trying to bridge those two elements.
Now when we talk about joy in general, and reconnecting with that child or the joy within, I have to explain why it is that a soul, or spirit, is naturally upbeat or optimistic. In other words, what I’m saying is that this optimism, this sense of belonging is a natural state.
When you look around at any kind of particular given situation and you see when people are happy— take a mundane example, let’s say at work—some people at work are just happy with their job, they’re happy. Usually, there are a few ingredients that contribute to that happiness. Ingredient number one is that they feel needed. They feel appreciated that they’re doing their job, they don’t feel negligible, they don’t feel taken advantage of, they feel that they belong, they feel that their particular talents or strengths are being utilized and appreciated. That’s an extremely important ingredient and I’m speaking here purely on an ostensible level without even getting to anything deeper than that.
So what is the significance of this feeling wanted, of this sense of belonging? It means that there’s something that’s touching you that allows you to be yourself. You don’t have to accommodate anyone, you don’t have to tailor your behavior or your actions toward unnatural or unrealistic expectations.
You can come in and do your job, and you’ll be appreciated for that. That sense of belonging, using spiritual terms, is essentially a sense that G-d put you here for a purpose and you are wanted and needed. When you have that type of inner security, its leads to natural joy. Indeed, that inner security is essentially one and the same with inner joy.
Natural joy doesn’t mean that you get up to dance and celebrate at every moment, but it’s just a certain feeling that you are wanted and needed. And when you have that, you have no reason to be sad.
Okay, we have Allen on the air.
Caller: Hi, good afternoon. I want to share a story on what I finally learned at age 42 and this works for me to gain control if I do feel sad over life’s events. It’s kind of summed up by saying the older I get, the smarter my father becomes. He passed away 17 years ago. I just think back to things he taught me. What I didn’t believe at age 21 I now see is so true at age 42. That makes me smile and it makes me able to go back into my memory, remember conversations we’ve had, and apply the knowledge today that I wasn’t able to apply 21 years ago.
Jacobson: So what do you do if you’re in a real saddened state? Do you just bring up memories?
Caller: I pick up a couple of books. I look at the situation, and if I can affect my surroundings and change the situation, then I devise a plan and go for it. If I can’t affect the situation, like the weather or the traffic, then I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about because worrying won’t change the situation.
Jacobson: Well, Allen, I must give you credit, because that’s exactly what’s expected of us. However, what do you tell people who just can’t accomplish the same thing that you do?
Caller: Well, I just give them perspective. I’m in medical sales and when my feet hurt when I wake up in the morning, I have two choices and I try to pass this along to them. I can either say, “Oh gosh, my feet hurt, I’m not happy,” or I can say, “Thank the L-rd that I have feet, because how many medical facilities do I go into where there are patients in nursing homes with amputated feet.”
I just try to keep it in perspective and I try to point that it out to people. Even my daughter, who’s nine years old, knows that a third of her allowance goes in the tzedakah (charity) box, because no matter how tough life is for her, she knows a lot of people have it much worse off.
Jacobson: Well, I commend you for that, and your call is very meaningful to me because I can affirm what you’re saying, because from the perspective of looking at the texts, when they discuss how one accesses joy, the idea of recognizing that I’ve done everything I can do in a given circumstance, and then letting go, is a very fundamental one.
Caller: There’s a saying that I don’t like to quote, because I usually only like to quote sayings I know from my Jewish background, but in Alcoholics Anonymous, one of their biggest sayings is “Let go, let G-d.” And you just summed it up. Look at a situation, if you can change it, attempt to, and if you can’t, accept it and know that it’s in a state higher than you can conceive of.
Jacobson: Well, I appreciate your call Allen. Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Caller: No. But thank you for listening so attentively and you know, it’s a lot easier to say than to do, but I’ve learned if you talk about things, your philosophies to people, and you share them with your family and friends, you’re more likely to integrate them into your own life.
Jacobson: Exactly Allen, and I hope that your call inspires others as well, because hearing it from a person who’s there is always best because it’s not just theoretical, but from a real live person of flesh and blood. So thanks for the call.
I’d like to embellish somewhat on what Allen just said. We see that joy consists of having a sense of purpose, coupled with what Allen just said, which is the second ingredient—recognizing that you do what you can do in certain circumstances, and after that you have to have what is called in Hebrew, bitachon, which means trust. You have to let go, not from a vulnerable place or out of weakness, but recognize that you have exhausted every option possible. Those of us who continue to obsess in a situation—feeling that it could have been different—cuts into a deeper issue of our own insecurity, and that’s why I go back to my initial point of having a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose.
I can’t ignore, of course, when you’re dealing with a topic like this, that as legitimate as Allen’s comments are, there are many of us who grew up in homes where that sense of self was seriously abused and one’s self-esteem was eroded.
Often when I hear people talking about the difficulty of being happy, when you really cut through the layers, what you’re really hearing is a sense of foreboding, of expecting things not to work.
But when you think about it, why would a soul sent by G-d to earth, with a very clear mission and a sense of purpose (i.e., this is what you’re needed for), ever feel that they are hated or that they can’t get it done or that they have no purpose in this world?
The answer is that that child who had natural joy, natural exuberance, and was ready to take on the world, all that was stamped out, at least on a conscious level, by parents who either projected their own insecurities or just projected their own inadequacy, their own lack of joy, onto this child.
And this outer layer doesn’t let that person access his own soul and his own joy.
So this is, of course, the most difficult situation, because what do you do to turn the clock back to return to the innocent child before it was damaged?
So let’s go to Joe, on the air.
Caller: You know, you said to make yourself feel happy you should take care of your insides. What do you do about the Holocaust?
Jacobson: Well, what do you do?
Caller: I asked you the question. I tell you why I asked. During the War, I was in France. You know in 1944, the French were ambivalent, they weren’t like the other people. Some were turning the Jews in and some were hiding them. They hid a bunch of Jews, and there was a German battalion in the area. We were in the area and I happened to be investigating, doing “point,” and I heard noises. I thought they were Nazis so I slammed open the door and I was ready to shoot, and I found about 20 people there.
Now, the captain said to me, “Leave them there.”
I said, “No, I have to take them. Give me a break. Let me take them to the rear.
He didn’t want to let me take them to the rear. And this bothers me to this day.
Jacobson: So you did leave them there?
Caller: No. The captain walked away and there was a back road there—there were a lot of roads there—and I took them about 2-3 miles away from the front and told them which way to go and they would find either a Jewish organization or the French underground, they would find somebody who would save them. I wouldn’t leave them there. I was fighting for America but I certainly wasn’t going to turn my back on Jews.
Jacobson: Well, Joe, you’re a hero.
Caller: I’m not a hero. Any Jewish guy would have done that. And I think the captain knew I did it. He had to give me orders to stay because we were in line, we were very close to the Germans, we were exchanging fire, we were having gunfights. He had to do what he had to do, and I had to do what I had to do.
But you still didn’t answer my question.
Jacobson: I appreciate your telling me the details. First of all, your call brings me joy. Because anyone like you who’s alive and thank G-d who’s healthy and who behaved in that fashion as you just described, has to lift our spirits. Because despite the entire darkness of the Holocaust … you know, I remember once hearing from an atheist who was debating a Holocaust survivor, and he was saying, “How could you still have faith after the Holocaust?” Can you imagine, this guy had the nerve—he didn’t even live through the Holocaust—and in his own philosophical mind he was challenging a Holocaust survivor?
And the Holocaust survivor turned to him and looked him straight in the eye and said, “You know, I’ll tell you what the Holocaust taught me. I lost my faith in man and I regained my faith in G-d. I realized I cannot depend on men and human beings.”
Joe, what you just described, yes it’s true, the Holocaust is a source of sadness that is a bottomless pit, and as much as we could talk about it, there’s no way that I’m going to explain the Holocaust here, and I’m not even interested in justifying it. It’s a source of deep sadness, not just for Jews but for the entire human race that allowed such a blemish and allowed such an atrocity to occur—it’s human beings at their worst.
However, when you hear a story like your own, Joe, and how you behaved, and I’m sure it’s consistent with your life following the war as well, that’s a source of joy that means that there is hope—even in a jungle, there is hope. I have no other words to say. The only other thing that I can say about the Holocaust in general is, we do not understand the mysterious ways of life and death. I have no answer for the Holocaust, yet we have two options, as I once heard a person who really suffered serious trauma (he lost his wife and was left with many little children), say, “I could either sink, go under, or dig deeper, and I decided to dig deeper.” So we have two options.
The Holocaust can be a source of an unbelievable pain if we dwell on it. That such a thing could have happened is simply unbelievable. It can’t get worse than that.
However, to dwell on it in that way is actually bringing upon ourselves a second Holocaust, creating an unproductive life where we’re only dwelling upon the negative.”
I’d love to be able to share with my children, and share on the air here, a story like yours, Joe. A story of thousands of others who came out of the Holocaust with renewed faith and who rebuilt their lives. Even though the scar will always remain a prominent one—particularly for Jews, but for all people—at the same, it’s not a contradiction.
You know, Rashi, a commentator on the Torah, says an interesting thing: you can mourn and grieve, and at the same time, as time passes, you celebrate. That doesn’t mean that you forget the loss, it just means that there’s a certain resilience, a certain power, that faith has that allows us to grow, and in a way, pain and grief can be transformed into a catalyst for growth.
If we in any way can sanctify the memory of the Holocaust victims, the way to do it is not to bring upon ourselves a Holocaust and say, “Look how terrible life is.” If we can, in their memory and in their spirit, we should be inspired to be a better people and inspired to never allow such a thing to ever happen again. To cry out at injustices as they happen today, as you, Joe, did. To save people who are in situations of a mini-Holocaust. (There are children living today whose homes are almost a Holocaust environment.)
If that memory inspires us, then what we’ve done is transformed tears and sadness into joy. So joy isn’t a type of naïve, glassy-eyed blindness to the realities of life. There are many causes and reasons for being in pain and sadness. At the same time, there’s a firm belief and faith that there’s a G-d, and a human being has a soul, and the spirit will rise.
And stories like yours, Joe, will inspire us that way. I don’t know if it’s a complete answer to your question; however, it’s as much as I can say without getting into the whole discussion of why a good G-d would allow bad things to happen. So again, I thank you for your call.
Let’s go to Norman. You’re on the air.
Caller: Good evening. The holiday which is the memorial for the destruction of the Temple, is that Tisha B’Av?
Jacobson: Yes, it’s called Tisha B’Av, which is the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. The antithesis of Purim.
Caller: You see, this holiday in which the Jews are supposed to be sad over a long period, hours and hours—I feel bad about that and I don’t do that. I think it should be acknowledged, but I definitely omit myself from this type of activity because to me it’s just dwelling in a morass of negativity and I don’t do it. I thought this might add something; I’m not asking for your justification.
Jacobson: But you do celebrate the holidays that are joyous?
Caller: More so than… yes. And in addition to that, I find that I’m evolving into acknowledging and feeling and vibrating to those holidays. Even though I may not do them now, I learn every day what vibrates within me and I pick up on that. Even though I may not do it actively, ever year I do less the sadness and more the joyous.
Jacobson: Okay, Norman. Thanks for that. My comment would be that I think the issue is really two sides of one coin. Jewish philosophy teaches us that there are two types of sadness: there’s a sadness that is destructive—a sadness of depression that is demoralizing and that weakens you.
But then there’s a healthy sadness, for example, where you are sensitive to a loss. It’s not one that’s demoralizing. Or you regret a mistake you’ve made. To be insensitive to that and just say, “Hey, nothing happened,” is a form of denial. And interestingly, when you’re in touch with healthy emotions, sadness and joy become very similar in a way. I know people who are very happy but it’s simply because they’re oblivious or completely in denial of what’s going on around them.
That’s not the happiness we’re discussing here. That’s not mature joy, that’s blindness. I’m not denying that it may be useful for the time being for certain individuals. Not everyone has to be exposed to all the traumas of life in order to test their mettle, but in a way, a person who’s able to be sad in a healthy way, out of strength, that same person will be able to be happy in a healthy way.
I see the other extreme as well: people who are so self-absorbed with their own depression, they also can’t get out of it. It has a lot to do with how you see yourself.
I often make the point in the classes I give that arrogance takes on different shapes. Arrogance can take on a shape of pompousness expressed as ecstatic joy, oblivious of the realities around you, even when people are in pain around you, but arrogance can also take on the shape of complete depression.
Bottom line, arrogance means: “I figured out that I’m the only one who can determine what mood I should be in.” So sometimes I meet someone and I say, “What do you mean you have a low self-esteem and you’re not valuable? G-d said you’re needed here on this earth.” And the person answers, “No, I know better.…” That’s arrogance. It’s just an arrogance that takes on the shape of complete self-annihilation, self-obliteration.
So self-hatred and depression is really just another form of the same arrogance of a person who’s completely arrogant at the expense of everyone around him.
It’s an interesting custom in Jewish tradition under the chuppah, the wedding canopy, to break the glass at the end of the ceremony. One of the reasons they do this is that it’s a reminder of the destruction of the Temple. So I always wondered, of all times to choose a reminder of the destruction of the Temple, it’s at the high point in two people’s lives, their wedding, the highest simcha, the highest joy? Couldn’t it have been done seemingly at the end of the wedding, or on another day? Why at that high point?
And the point is this. Those who know how to remember others’ pain at the height of their joy will also know how to remember to have joy at their height of pain. It’s people who live in extremes, who cannot find balance, where their joy is complete and they don’t have that one percent opening that there may be people out there who are not married, or who are unable to, or who have difficulties in relationships, or people in pain in some other way.
If you remember those people, or you’re just sensitive because you’re not so consumed with your own feelings, no matter how justified they are (a marriage is a marriage), but you leave that little opening, then one day, if G-d forbid you should be challenged where you’re faced with a trauma or some loss, it also won’t be all consuming. You’ll have that one percent opening of joy and happiness. And I think that’s the balance. So Norman, I can’t tell you how to live your life, but I could say to you that it’s important to know that there’s a time to cry and a time to celebrate, as King Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes. But I thank you for your call.
Now, I’d like to take a break to invite you to my Wednesday night class in New York City, at 8pm every Wednesday night at 346 W. 89th St., corner of Riverside Drive. All are welcome no matter what background or what gender, no matter what affiliation or non-affiliation. And just as this show has been coined “A Show for Skeptics and Seekers,” so too is the class.
We’ve been talking about joy, a human emotion that is sorely needed. We see how productive we are when we are happy people, and we see how unproductive we are when we are saddened.
We have Rikki on the line.
Caller: I have a question about Purim. You say it’s a joyous holiday, but there’s something about it that makes me a little uncomfortable. When I’m in the synagogue, at the mention of Haman’s name, everyone starts yelling and screaming. I understand that originally it was intended to obliterate the name, but it seems to me more and more that it is a hateful expression—something that seems incongruous with Jewish thought because I don’t think that Judaism is about summoning up those kind of feelings. I would always think that Judaism tries to promote love. Could you explain that a little more?
Jacobson: Good question, Rikki. Just for those listeners who may not understand what Rikki is referring to, traditionally on Purim day, which is the 14th day of Adar, the Megillah scroll (of the story of Purim, the story of Haman and the plot against the Jews, and how they were saved by Mordechai and Esther), is read publicly in the synagogue, both on Purim evening and Purim day. The tradition goes that when Haman’s name is mentioned in the reading, some people stomp their feet, some people shoot off little “shotguns” (I don’t think there’s any TNT or any major fireworks going on) but a lot of noise and racket goes on in the synagogue.
What Rikki’s asking, which is a very legitimate question, is that it’s slowly taken on its own culture, a life of its own, which seemingly is not the emphasis in Judaism. But the tradition begins, simply on the mildest level, with the awareness in the context of what I said earlier: Even when we’re celebrating on Purim, where we have very good reason to celebrate, (and let’s speak on a psychological level, when a person is happy with their lives and they find many reasons to be joyous), you still have to remember that there was a Hitler out there, and in the time of Purim, Haman was no different from a Hitler. There are people who are either cruel or wicked, and they continuously hurt people. So the awareness of that, even when you’re at the height of joy, is one of the most beautiful elements of Judaism: that it’s never unrealistic joy, it’s never an escape.
As long as this world is imperfect, we still remember those in pain. And one of the ways we remember is that when Haman’s name is mentioned, we stomp with our foot, which essentially is a symbol of remembering that there are still people out there who are that way and we have to eradicate evil.
Interestingly in Judaism the concept of evil is looked at that the sin should be erased but not the sinners. So even in the worst scenario, when we’re talking about evil, we’re not talking about the destruction of an individual unless that individual has become completely corrupt, like a Hitler, or like a Stalin, or others in history, where simply their existence is a threat to others.
So I do agree that when negativity is overdone to excess, it almost becomes a spectacle of its own. But if you think about the original tradition, it has beauty to it, that there’s the height of celebration on Purim for the victory against the enemies of the Jews, yet we still remember that there is a Haman and we have to protect those who are vulnerable and can be hurt.
But interestingly, when the Jews came out of Egypt (the Egyptians had oppressed the Jewish people for many years, and they were enslaved by them, and after the Jews left Egypt, the Egyptians still didn’t give up but pursued the Jews), and the Egyptians were drowning in the parted sea and the Jews began singing praise to G-d, the Talmud says that G-d said to the Jewish people, “My children are drowning and you’re singing praise?” And remember, we’re dealing here with Egyptians, who were the equivalent of Nazis at that time. They had enslaved the Jewish people for 210 years and wouldn’t give up. They wouldn’t let them go. And they deserved to be killed; G-d had killed them. Yet we always need to be sensitive.
So even when we’re stomping on a Haman, we’re not talking about some type of vengeance, it’s more of a sensitivity that there’s evil in this world. At the same time, it’s not gloating but a form of recognition and a sensitivity to be joyous when you need to be joyous, and saddened by that which saddens us.
So we’ll go to AJ.
Caller: Good evening. I like your program. You’re very articulate and very interesting to listen to. I think a sense of hatred and guilt and also sometimes the guilt is conscious or subconscious, I think that as a strong way of pushing out joy, that people really can’t get joyous once they pick up this entrenchment of sorts, which is a killer of joy.
For instance, I don’t think that Hitler and these guys were really joyful, except for maybe a temporary period when he took Paris or something, but throughout their lives, I think it was just eating away at themselves with a concern about what they didn’t do or what they did do, or how they hadn’t accomplished as much as they wanted, and they really were not all that pleasant to be around.
Their joy was very temporary and their hate and guilt ate away at them. And sometimes it’s even subconscious.
And by the way, for people in the Catholic church, the Saint’s Day is relevant to the day they die, not their birthday. And they feel that as they die they may go to heaven, or will go, and it’s a joyful day in a sense that they are delivered from this life to a perpetual joy in the next. That’s it.
Jacobson: Thank you for your comments, AJ. I totally agree with you, AJ, that the worst thing that a person can do when they’ve been hurt and have legitimate grievances (as I was referring earlier to bringing on your own personal Holocaust in your life), is to perpetuate it by becoming hating or hateful, because then you become a greater victim of the person who’s hurt you, the perpetrator.
In a way, our own pride should say to ourselves, “Yes, that person has wronged me, but I don’t want to remain their victim by continuing to carry that type of demoralizing hatred or sadness around with me. That doesn’t mean ‘turning the other cheek.’ It means an awareness that something wrong was done, that there was a wrong perpetrated, but I will convert my motivation into something extremely positive that eradicates the evil to bringing more light into the world.”
Obviously, for those who are in danger and in the line of fire a person has to do everything possible to protect himself, but what a person should do is not to run from a burning building, rather build new buildings and new structures in which to live.
And that’s why I am filled with admiration for people who came out of the Holocaust or for that matter any trauma, and have built and rebuilt and have not been brought down and demoralized.
You wonder, what is the anatomy? Why are some people so consumed and so overwhelmed by real tragedies, and others have an inner joy or an inner reservoir, an arsenal to call upon? Victor Frankel said it when he writes about the Holocaust in his book Man in Search of Meaning, that a human being who finds prior to the tragedy that he or she has a real purpose in being alive, then no matter what happens in their lives it’s like roots of a tree. The storm may strike, branches may be broken off, leaves may be blown away, but the tree remains standing because it’s firmly planted, firmly rooted, firmly grounded, and it has a sense of belonging that I was referring to earlier.
It’s a sense that G-d put you here on this earth and no human being can take that away from you. And no human being gives that to you. Your parents don’t give you your reason for being, your justification for existence. What gives it to you is an inherent sense of purpose, an inner sense that “you matter” because G-d put you here.
And since no human being gave it to you, no human being can take it away from you. People can hurt us and people can take away opportunities from us, but they cannot take away our inherent value, which is the real reason why we should celebrate life, that we are here.
In Jewish tradition there’s a prayer that’s said every morning upon arising, “Modeh Ani,” “I acknowledge G-d for returning my soul to me.” It’s essentially saying that the greatest reason for celebration is that I am here, I belong, and that no person can ever take that away from me, because I have that inherently.
Now I do want to make a suggestion or two of how to access that part of you, but let’s go to Bob in New York.
Caller: Yes, I’d like to contribute another aspect of joy that I believe that is accurate, that when people had rescued Jews, which is voluntary of course, they had a pure feeling of joy toward G-d on a high level. And I believe that if I were a rescuer, that would drive me also if I was feeling that high. Not everybody feeling that close to G-d would do it, but it has to be from a joyfulness.
I want to add another point… I heard criticism when I was a grade school student that some of the Germans didn’t help the Jews when they knew what was happening. Well, on the reverse side, how could you help somebody when the Germans had all the armaments and the machines and the equipment? This is the normal fear of a human being. But the gentiles and others who rescued Jews, in my opinion, were close to G-d and had joy for G-d.
Jacobson: I appreciate that. I hope, Bob, you have some of that joy yourself, but you shouldn’t have to use it to save people who are in danger. We should be able to use our joy in situations that are healthy. Unfortunately was see that the strength of human beings is mostly expressed only in darkest times, like they say, it takes the eclipse of the sun to see the power of sunlight. Sometimes in the darkest of times (and I see from the calls coming in this evening) you see the greatest joy and the power of it.
If we were all joyous people and there was no reason to be sad, we would never appreciate what joy is all about. But because we live in a world that is cruel and a world in which people have been hurt, children particularly, joy is that powerful, elusive goal that so many of us aspire to.
We’ll go to Steve on the line.
Caller: Hello Rabbi. I was thinking that one way to draw on the joy that is found in the wellsprings of the heart, as you say, comes from a teaching of Rabbi Nachman who says that when there’s nothing in the world to smile about, the thing you should do is smile, and G-d gives you everything to smile about.
Jacobson: Well said. I like that. And as a matter of fact, that’s a good segue, Steve, because I was going to address that one of the traditions on Purim, for instance, one of the exercises, is to join a festive meal. And I always wondered, if you’re not in a happy mood, who wants to go to a party? So it becomes a Catch-22 situation. How do you force yourself to go to a party when you’re not joyous?
At the same time you do see that when you’re with others who are happy, there’s a contagious element to joy. It may be distracting and it may not necessarily have a profound effect, but I’m a firm believer that behavioral change, sometimes acting a certain way, definitely can affect you in a way where you begin to assume that personality.
Now, if we weren’t joyous at the heart of it all, if we weren’t inherently joyous people and the inner child was not a joyous one, then you could say that it’s a superimposed state to just party. But if we really believe that deep in our reservoirs there is joy, then the question is, how do we unclog the pipes to get there?
So with unclogged pipes, just to use that analogy, we usually do two things. If you can get to the root of it, from the bottom, then you unclog it from the bottom, but if you can’t reach it from the bottom, then you go to the top and you try to unclog whatever is blocking it—like Roto-Rooter.
So to access in a person’s soul those reservoirs of strengths, sometimes you need that behavioral change, you have to go to a party, you have to participate. And if you have a friend who is sad and doesn’t want to go (I mean obviously you don’t have to force anyone), you do everything possible, because sometimes a person needs a type of shock treatment to just shake up the clogs in our arteries. When you begin unclogging it from one end, sometimes it dislodges it and something can flow from within, in other words, from the reservoirs of joy themselves.
So on a practical level, one of the suggestions that the Torah does give for a person who just can’t pull themselves out of their own despondent state, is not to sit and dwell on it. Go find yourself someone who’s happy. The fact is that in the presence of someone who’s naturally joyous and happy, it always has an effect on us. It may not change you overnight and it may not have a dramatic impact, but being in that type of presence does have a certain warming effect and, let’s put it this way, you have nothing to lose.
On the other hand, hanging around with people like yourself when you’re despondent doesn’t usually help, because what happens is despondency and demoralization breeds demoralization. It all comes down to that you have to have belief and faith that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Of course there are situations in life where we’re so overwhelmed that we can’t see anything. That’s why we have to prepare in the years of plenty for those years of famine. In the times that we do have an opening, and everyone has a moment in their lives where there’s a little opening, where they feel a little joy, they have to grab that moment, and get themselves some friends and say to them, listen, when I go under and I can’t see the difference, and I’m in such darkness that I don’t want to hear anything, remember to shlep me to some party. And that’s a window of opportunity that we have to use that allows us this and particularly in months that are opportune times in the Hebrew calendar, because time has an energy that allows us an opportunity that we have to access. Perhaps the clogs are a little less clogged up in these months.
So thank you for your call, Steve.
There’s no question that that’s one of the things that none of us would reject if someone came to us and said, “I have a gift for you called joy.” Because when a person is optimistic and happy with themselves, they’re more productive. You can accomplish more in one hour in a happy state than a person who has ten hours and is in a saddened state, because when you’re happy your faculties are sharper and you’re more in tune.
By the way, a topic like this cannot possibly be exhausted in such a short time, so we want to invite all of you to share your thoughts and questions and we will post them on our website. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org or www. meaningfullife.com and we welcome all comments and questions, from skeptics to seekers.
We’ll go to Larry.
Caller: Hi Rabbi. I have one quick thought that I want to share with you and your listeners. My wife and I find a good way to create happiness in our lives is simply by celebrating a few simple elements of Shabbat. On Friday night especially, we light candles, we say the motzi on the challah, we bless the wine and we go through a few family ritual acts. We find that that gives us tremendous energy to start the new week.
Jacobson: That’s a very good point that Larry made. We were talking mostly about Purim, but there is no question that any spiritual reminders in our lives, anything that a person can do (and speaking from the Jewish tradition, whether it’s the Sabbath), any time we take time out from the material immersion of our lives and remind ourselves of our own inherent spirituality is the greatest cause for joy.
I didn’t really have the time to elaborate on this, but the fact is that materialism inherently is the root of all despondency. Because the fact is, anything material—money, possessions—since they’re all temporary, can never provide the type of security that real inner joy comes from.
In Ethics of the Father we learn, Marbeh nechosim marbeh daageh, the more money you have, the more problems you have, because you have more to protect. More property, more anxiety, more to worry about.
Anxiety is a direct result of the temporary and transient elements in our lives. However, on the other hand, that which is eternal in our lives is always going to be a cause for joy because it gives you that type of grounding, that anchor, that you know you can depend upon.
It’s like if you start a project and you have someone who is doing work for you. If you know you can’t rely on that person and you always have to be checking on him, the anxiety level may not be worth hiring a person like that. It may be worth doing it yourself.
However, when you can depend on someone and know that he or she is going to be doing the job, that type of reliance gives you the security that you can then feel happier. So happiness is very much connected to the objects of our desires and our happiness.
I do want to share a blessing and a suggestion that one of the keys to happiness is to have happy friends. Find yourself a happy friend that you can call upon that has that sincere sense of happiness, and remember, the spirituality that you build in your life is a nest-egg. The more you diversify it, the more security you have.
As always, it’s been a pleasure. I hope you’ll join me next Sunday at 6pm on WEVD 1050AM. This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. Thank you and have a good evening.