By Count Machluf Elkaim
MyLife Essay Contest 2017
Simcha (joy) is an intrinsic component of Judaism, and all the more so of a Chassidic lifestyle. In fact, early Chassidim were often recognized by their joyful attitudes and behavior. Sometimes, misnagdim (anti-Chassidim) even used to ridicule their songs, dances, and antics, considering them irreverent. However, joy is a fundamental component of Judaism and Chassidic life, and this essay will attempt to highlight its importance and ways in which to apply the service of joy in one’s daily life.
The Natural State of Human Beings Is to Be Joyful
When one observes small children, even accounting for variances in personality and character traits, one will notice that joy, laughter, and genuine happiness tends to be the natural disposition of the overwhelming majority of children. It is only unfortunately over the years that through the influences or their parents, education, and environment, as well as the hardships they encounter in life, most children will reduce their amount of joy. Even if we account for the fact that as a child grows up, it is normal that the happiness is expressed in a more mature, subdued manner, still that depression almost always only appears in adulthood is a testament to the fact that although joy is the natural state of being for the vast majority of humans, often it is unlearned during the vagaries of life.
The Major Reasons for Lack of Joy
We will be describing the principle causes for lack of joy, and expounding on the teachings of Chassidus as related to these phenomena, as well as giving some practical advice for incorporating joy into one’s life.
A person can be very troubled by what is happening in the world, for example natural calamities such as earthquakes, volcano eruptions, floods, fires, etc. The ways of Hashem (G-d) can be quite incomprehensible to mere humans, but that should not be surprising as Hashem says1, “My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” As a layperson cannot understand an engineer’s blueprint nor why all the details have to be so, to an infinitely greater degree is a finite human being incapable of fathoming the infinite ways of Hashem. What we can be sure of is that Hashem rules the world for our benefit and that He is full of love and compassion for us, so as much as we should pray for only revealed goodness, in retrospect whatever He did was for our ultimate good.
In Basi Legani2, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch, the Previous and Sixth Rebbe, explains how our world is not only a garden, but Hashem’s private pleasure garden in which His Essence is present at all times. Unlike some other schools of thought, Chassidus does not believe in tikun olam (the rectification of the world) because the world as Hashem made it is already perfect, but rather in making this world into a dira lo betachtonim (an abode for Hashem to reside in comfortably) by revealing His Presence through learning Torah and doing mitzvos, as it says, “serve Hashem with joy”3.
It is normal to feel hurt, shock, pain, and horror at what humans can do, be it on a large scale such as the Holocaust, pogroms, war, terror attacks, etc. Also on a personal scale, it can be extremely difficult to come to terms with the power struggles, jealousy, hatred, theft, lies, aggressiveness, abuse, and meanness of others, including unfortunately in the Chabad community. However, we are taught that inside every Jew is a “literal part of Hashem”4, and thus even though it is correct to hate sins, we should still love the sinners5.
When someone has personally been on the receiving end of hateful behavior or words, feelings of having been subjected to injustice and hate towards the instigator are very difficult to combat, yet we must remember what Dovid HaMelech said about Shimi ben Geirah when he cursed him6, that it was Hashem who had allowed Shimi to curse him, as it is explained7 that in order for the world to exist as something out of nothing, Hashem recreates it at every instant and it is His Divine Power that enables the world to exist. In fact, if G-d forbid Hashem no longer desired our world, He would not even need to destroy it; all He would have to do is stop creating it. Therefore, at the very moment Shimi was cursing Dovid HaMelech, the energy that gave him the ability to speak was Divine. In addition, one should never be angry, as our Sages teach that it is a form of idolatry, because a person who is angry attests to the fact that he or she believes that what happened was solely the result of the free will of the perpetrator8.
This shows that nothing that happens in this world is by chance or against Hashem’s Will, G-d forbid. Chassidus teaches that even the trajectory of a dead leaf flying in the wind is purposefully designed by Hashem. How much more so does Hashem take care of every detail of a human being’s life, especially a Jew’s, and as we know that nothing bad can come from Hashem Who is All-Good, we can be certain that anything that happens to us is in fact for our benefit. This of course does not take away from the fact that the sinner should not have done what he or she did against us, and he or she will be held responsible for his or her actions or words, yet the fact that it happened to us was decreed by Hashem and would have happened anyway, even if this particular person who hurt us had not done so, as Hashem has many messengers who can carry out His Will.
Material difficulties, such as a lack of health, sustenance, or children, and any of their ramifications can reduce simcha in a person’s life. However, it is explained in Tanya9 that not only are material problems for one’s ultimate good, they themselves are the expression of a higher level of G-dliness than that in revealed goodness. It is explained that material challenges come about either to cleanse the soul of wrongdoing or to test a person in order for he or she to pass the test and achieve greater closeness to Hashem. For a soul to be cleansed in this world is itself a blessing because it is preferable for the soul to be purified in this world rather than in the Hereafter where everything is exponentially increased, and so is the pleasure or pain of a soul. Consequently, a moment of suffering in the Heareafter would be incredibly more painful for the soul than a whole life of misery in this world, may G-d preserve us.
For a person to be tested in order to achieve greater closeness to Hashem is also a blessing, as no pleasure in this world could come close to the infinite pleasure of a soul in Hashem10. In addition, as soon as the person has passed the test, the suffering will cease. Similarly, it is important to keep in mind how hidden goodness comes from a higher level of Hashem, the levels of Yud and Hey (the first two letters) of Hashem’s Name of Yud-Kay-Vav-Kay, in contrast to revealed goodness which emanate from the last two letters, Vav and Hey, and thus is of a lower level11.
Finally, despondency may be caused by disheartenment with one’s spiritual level. Nevertheless, as it is explained in Tanya12, most people will never reach the level of a Tzaddik (Righteous Person), who does not have any desire for materialistic pleasures, even permitted. As Dovid HaMelech described this level13, “my heart is void within me,” i.e. he killed his material craving through fasting. Tanya14 compares the level of Tzadik to sweet, luscious foods which are highly enjoyable, but which one does not always prefer; sometimes, a person desires sharp, sour foods such as pickled delicacies.
The level of Beinoni, which every Jew has the capability to reach, is compared to such pickled delicacies and requires one to never sin in thought, speech, or deed, i.e. never contemplate a forbidden deed, even without the intention to fulfill it, never utter a forbidden word, or do a forbidden act. In addition, a Beinoni never misses a positive commandment he or she is able to fulfill, including always learning Torah when a free moment arises (for men, as women are not obligated in most time-bound mitzvos). The Tanya stresses that although a Beinoni is required to strive to reach the level of Tzaddik and some will attain it eventually, even if the Beinoni never actually reaches that level, he or she should be joyful that they are also serving Hashem in the manner of a Beinoni, as Hashem desires both Tzaddikim and Beinonim, not a world of only Tzaddikim. The struggle of the Beinoni is in many ways dearer to Hashem than the tranquil, subdued service of the Tzaddik.
Thus, there is no place for lack of simcha because of spiritual challenges; on the contrary being joyful will help a person combat his or her Evil Inclination.
Simcha in Chassidus
There is also a well-known saying of the Tzemach Tzedek often quoted by the Rebbe to “tracht gut vet zein gut” (think good and it will be good). This teaches us the power of positive thinking to affect a positive outcome in this material world. Positive thinking and bitachon (trust) in Hashem are only possible when someone is sincerely joyful.
“Simcha poreitz geder” (joy breaks through all barriers). There is a Chassidic principle that being joyful in itself has the ability to change any decree Above that would have resulted in hidden goodness into revealed goodness. An example of this is when the Rebbe suffered a heart attack on Shmini Atzeres 5738 (1977), he was adamant that the usual Hakafos rejoicing not only not be diminished, but on the contrary increased. When asked if the noise of the singing and dancing bothered him, the Rebbe replied that on the contrary it pleased him a lot.
Two Stories and Their Lessons for Us
There is a story about Rabbi Akiva that one day he traveled to a town but was not allowed in at night, and consequently was forced to spend the night in the field outside the city. He had a candle with which to learn Torah by candlelight, a rooster to wake him up in the morning to daven (pray), and a donkey to carry his packages. During the night, the wind blew out his candle, and both his rooster and donkey were devoured by wild animals. These were all occurrences of hidden good, and yet Rabbi Akiva said “Everything Hashem does is for the good.” It happened that during the night, bandits attacked the city and took all of its inhabitants captive, yet had failed to notice Rabbi Akiva. Had his candle been lit and his animals alive and noisy, he would have shared the fate of the city’s inhabitants. Thus, everything that happened to him was indeed for the good.
Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, Nachum Ish Gam Zu, had a similar scenario. He was bringing a chest full of precious jewels to the Roman emperor in order to petition him to rescind a terrible decree on the Jews. Yet, he was robbed in the inn he stayed at during the night, and did not have a choice but to continue to Rome with a chest full of ordinary sand instead. He had bitachon in Hashem that “this too is for the good”. When the emperor was presented with the sand, he was perplexed, but then one of his advisors (who the Talmud teaches was actually Eliyahu HaNavi in disguise), told the emperor that perhaps this was the magic sand of the Jews, similar to the one Avraham Avinu used to defeat his enemies. When the sand was sent to the front lines, and it turned out to indeed be the case, the emperor appreciated the gift more than he would have any amount of jewels, of which he was far from lacking, and he abolished the decree against the Jews.
In contrast to Rabbi Akiva’s story, Nachum Ish Gam Zu’s story was one in which the occurrences were not only for the good, but actually good in and of themselves. This can also be seen from the differences in their respective sayings, “hakol letovah, everything is for the good” and “gam zu levtovah, this is also for the good” (he said it on so many occasion that people even started to call him Nachum Ish Gam Zu). The difference highlights that “this”—the process—was also revealed good, and not just the outcome.
The fact that it was so was because the bitachon of Nachum Ish Gam Zu was stronger than that of Rabbi Akiva, as he was a generation closer to the Revelation at Har Sinai, and the stronger bitachon was the catalyst for the positive process in addition to the positive outcome. We also must attempt to emulate this high level of trust, and always remain hopeful and joyful that not only the outcome but also the process will be revealed goodness. We always have to remember that just as someone who knew nothing about medicine would be shocked at seeing a doctor operate a patient and think he is trying to murder him, G-d forbid, although in reality he is saving his life, we too do not understand all the parts of the grand picture of our lives, those of others, and what is going on in the world at large. Yet, although we should always pray for only revealed goodness, in hindsight we can take assurance that everything Hashem does is ultimately for the good, and if we have enough trust, we will be able to see that “this too is for the good”, even the process itself and not solely the outcome is revealed goodness.
True joy is an inner joy, unrelated to any material possession or even spiritual level. Of course, every person should be happy as they grow in their spiritual journey and achieve greater closeness with Hashem. However, true joy stems from the soul, from a place even deeper than spiritual achievement. It comes from the essence of the soul, which is one with the Essence of Hashem. This unbreakable, unalienable, eternal connection should be the basis of a Jew’s constant state of simcha. Therefore, no amount of physical or spiritual challenges, G-d forbid, can interfere with this level of joy, which is the joy of a Jew’s G-dly soul rejoicing in its oneness with Hashem. Our responsibility is to ensure that nothing blocks our conscious sensitivity to this extraordinary, pristine, and true simcha.
Joy as an End in Itself
The importance of serving Hashem with joy is well-known. It is so important that the Rambam includes it as one of the seven prerequisites to prophecy15. However, the Rebbe often stressed the service of joy as an end in itself, as a harbinger of the times of Moshiach. Not only that, but the Rebbe also stressed how the simcha itself can bring Moshiach sooner, as already acting in the way it will be when Moshiach will be revealed is a catalyst that will precipitate his coming.
Five Meditations to Cause Joy
- I matter to Hashem, which is why He created me. When I say Modeh Ani each morning, I will say it slowly and concentrate on sincerely thanking Hashem for His belief in me and renewing my lease on life for another day.
- Hashem created me for a unique purpose that only I can fulfill, so I will not let Him down.
- If Hashem had enough faith to create me and even now gives me back my soul every morning, should not I have faith in myself?!
- I will take a moment each day to count my blessings, as well as all the good things and people in my life that I am thankful for.
- In material matters, I will look at those who are less fortunate than me and be grateful for what I have, yet in spiritual matters, I will strive to imitate those who are better than me.16
Five Practices to Stimulate Joy
- Learn Chassidic teachings on joy, its importance, and service.
- Learn and sing joyful niggunim (songs) that uplift the soul and the mood.
- Focus on serving Hashem with joy when learning Torah, doing mitzvos, and davening (praying).
- Make simcha into an avodah (service) in itself, and make it a point to try to always be joyful.
- Attend Chassidic Farbrengens (gatherings) regularly.
It is the author’s sincere hope that the above will bring you to a renewed emphasis on serving Hashem with simcha and the service of joy itself, as well as reveal greater joy in your life, materially and spiritually. May our efforts to increase the joy in our lives—something the Rebbe emphasized very often, especially in the later years—bring about the true and complete Redemption when “all sorrow will cease and there will be everlasting joy.”17
- Yeshayahu 55:9
- Basi Legani 5710, Chapter 1
- Tehillim 100:2
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 2
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 32, and Heichaltzu, Chapter 9
- Shmuel II, 16:10
- Shaar HaYichud VeHaEmunah, Chapter 1
- Iggeres HaKodesh, Igeres 25
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 26
- BeYom Ashtei-Asar Yom, 5731
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 26
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 14
- Tehillim 109:22, and Iggeres HaTeshuvah, Chapter 7
- Likkutei Amarim, Chapter 27
- Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 7:1
- HaYom Yom, Cheshvan 24
- Yeshayahu 51:11
About the Author
Count Machluf Elkaim is a descendant of the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, an ordained rabbi, and a hedge fund manager based in Bal Harbour, FL. In the early 1980s, he founded JEM with his initial grant, and over the years was the major supporter of the Rebbe’s satellite broadcasts around the world. In 1987, he founded, directed, and solely funded Chabad of Mid-Miami Beach. Count Elkaim had the honor of always sitting at the Rebbe’s table during Farbrengens and having a very close relationship over decades with the Rebbe. He believes that the current time when the Rebbe is not physically present is a test for us to implement the Rebbe’s directives in order to bring Moshiach NOW!