This week's learning and practice is generously dedicated by Alan Morinis to Modya and Orit who add light to the world.
This week we continue to work together on joy (שמחה – simcha). Perhaps the character trait is better referred to as simchat nefesh, “joy of the soul” since our aspiration is to this highest level of the trait.
Our teaching this week comes primarily from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s commentary to Tehillim (Psalms). In Psalm 86:3, King David requests that G-d endows him spiritually, “Endow my spirit, O my Master, for to You do I cry all the time”. This verse leads into the next where David asks that G-d gladdens his soul, or in our language, provides him with simchat nefesh, “Gladden the soul of thy servant for unto You, O my Master, do I lift up my soul”. We should look then at what this level of joy is and how we can work with it in our daily lives since this level is the pinnacle of development for this middah.
Hirsch tells us that this level is the feeling the soul has as it grows closer to G-d. And it grows closer to G-d through understanding, loyalty to duty, dedication, love and awe. It is the highest happiness we can achieve and does not speak to physical happiness. You ease into a nice hot bath, you sip a good glass of your favourite drink, you see a spectacular sunset. The feelings from these, if not connected to G-dly awareness are simply physical manifestations of joy - beautiful, but in Jewish thought, incomplete. Simchat nefesh is a spiritual feeling that appreciates each of those events by knowing that G-d is the connector between you and the event.
This distinction helps explain the otherwise troublesome line from Rebbe Nachman of Breslev who said “it’s a great mitzvah to ALWAYS be in a state of joy”. The joy that Rebbe Nachman was speaking of is not physical joy. How could we be physically joyous at times of pain and loss. However, at those times, I could still be filled with love, awe, dedication, loyalty to duty and understanding. Maintaining these foundational qualities helps me to stay close to G-d and that results in a deep joy that transcends the physical.
When I lost my job some time ago, the loss was real and somewhat painful on the physical level (rejection, need to feed my family, uncertainty of future). However, I had seen it coming based on the economic downturn and had had time to think and plan my next steps. I also had time to reflect on where G-d was in the process for me and how I could use the event as an opportunity to draw closer and see and revel in the wonders of G-d’s world. When the final phone call came to say “I have some bad news …”, I was able to say “it’s not bad news for me …”. What I didn’t add, but felt was “HaShem has other plans for me and so this moment is actually a time of joy”. While aspects of my firing felt bad, my wife kept reminding me that I have a life plan that strives to maximize my potential (madrega is part of that). She pointed out that I am doing other things that contribute to that plan and that is where I should look to realize true joy, since ultimately those things are designed to draw me closer to my potential and closer to G-d.
In the summer we have three weeks of mourning leading up to the historical destruction of the Jerusalem Temples (on Tisha B'Av). We are told to reduce our joy during those three weeks, however, we are not told to eliminate our joy. If we are to mourn, then surely a lack of joy would be appropriate. This dictum to still have joy must mean that the joy to be maintained is not derived from physical pleasures, rather it is a higher level of joy.
The founder of the main Mussar school following Rabbi Yisrael Salanter was Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm. On the issue of joy he said, “A person takes great pleasure in viewing a work of art, even though it does not belong to him. Why? Because it’s natural for perception of beauty to arouse a good feeling. Alas, if people would only perceive the beauty of G-dliness, they would be truly happy.”
The Alter of Kelm’s statement, along with the lines from Psalm 86, point to the need to view our lives in terms of relationships. If I can slip into a hot bath, sip a great drink and watch a magnificent sunset and while enjoying the physical pleasure, I also see how HaShem has allowed those things to be presented, then I can enhance my relationship with my Creator. It’s a win-win. I get the sunset and a better relationship. May we all merit to have deeper joy with every physical event.
Practice: This week, each day, look for a time when you feel good from something the physical world has presented you. At that moment tell yourself that this is a gift from G-d and say out loud “Thank you”. If this week proves to be a difficult week filled with challenges, then when you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders say to yourself “Don’t tell G-d about how big your troubles are, tell your troubles about how big G-d is”.