Simcha: Joy in Judaism

Nov 26, 2014

We plan on relating to three aspects of this topic –

  1. Joy in Judaism (this unit);
  2. Joy in Chasidut
  3. Joy and Marriage;
  4. How to become joyous

The first unit shows how central and indispensable joy is to normal healthy Jewish life and how high of a priority it is in character development. In the second we see the special place joy has in the Chasidic world. The third dealing with the crucial role joy plays in marriage. The last unit both relates to different paths to attaining joy and will help us get a more precise idea of what it is.

The following sources clearly place joy at the core of a number of crucial areas of Judaism. Perhaps this first unit’s main contribution is collecting them and enabling us to confront them all at once.

The Sources:

Joy and Avodat (Service of) Hashem
Serve G-d with joy, come before Him with song (Tehillim 100:2)
Serve G-d with fear and rejoice in trembling (Tehillim 2:11)
Be joyous in Hashem, and rejoice righteous ones, and sing out all those who are upright of heart. (Tehillim 32:11)
Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and goodness of heart . . . (Devarim 28:47). Context: the reason given by the Torah for the long list of troubles and sufferings that are part of the tokheicha (rebuke) of Parshat Ki Tavo.

The Rambam on Simcha
A person’s joy in doing the mitzvot and the love of Hashem who commanded them is a great avoda (service). Anyone who avoids this is deserving of reproof, as it says, “Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and goodness of heart.” Anyone who is arrogant and ascribes to himself honor in these situations [and thereby refrains from expressing joy in service of Hashem] is a sinner and and an idiot. This is what Shlomo warned — “Do not aggrandize yourself before the King.” This is also what David the King of Israel said, “I would even lighten myself more and be lowly in my own eyes.” The only greatness and honor is to be joyous before G-d, as it says, “King David was ecstatically dancing before Hashem.” (Rambam Mishneh Torah – end of the Laws of Sukkah and Lulav)

Simcha, Torah, Prophecy, & Good Dreams
“The Torah is acquired in 48 ways: . . . with humility, with joy, with purity, . . . “ (Baraita Kinyan Torah — Avot 6:6)

“With joy: Because one who learns with joy can learn more in one hour than what he can learn in many hours when he is sad. Also, the Torah is the plaything of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and one must be joyous about such a great thing. (Ruach Chaim on Avot 6:6 — Rabbi Chaim Volozhin)

To teach you that the Divine Presence does not rest on a person through sadness, nor through laughing or lightheadness, or conversation or idle talk — only through joy of a mitzva, for it says [with regards to the prophet Elisha], “Take for me a musician. And it was when the musician played, the Hand of G-d was on him.” Rav Yehuda says, This is also the case for a Halakhic teaching. Rava said this is also the case for a good dream. (Talmud Bavli Shabbat 30b)

Simcha and Prayer
A person should not pray when in a state of sadness or laziness or laughing or conversation or lightheadness or idle talk, but out of joy of a mitzva. (Talmud Bavli Berakhot 31a)

It is forbidden to pray out of sadness, and if one does, his soul cannot receive the higher light drawn on him during prayer. Rather, his prayer should be in exceedingly great joy, as much as possible. This is comparable to a servant serving his master out of great joy. . . . (Shaar Hakavanot — Writings of the Ari, quoted in Netivot Shalom vol. 1, p. 285)

Why Simcha? The Maharal on Simcha Shel Mitzva
Why does simcha appear in conjunction with so many crucial core Jewish issues? Perhaps this selection from the Maharal’s commentary on the following aggada:

It says, “I praise joy,” and yet also says, “Of what use is joy?” This only seems to be contradictory. “I praise simcha,” refers to simcha of a mitzva and “Of what use is simcha,” refers to simcha that is not connected to a mitzva. (Shabbat 30b)

Maharal’s comment: . . . When a man is joyous his soul (nefesh) is complete and whole (beshleimut) . . . Only when his joy is that of a mitzva it is Divine wholeness and praiseworthy. . . . Otherwise it is physical and cannot be considered complete and is therefore not praiseworthy.

He goes on to explain why joy is a prerequisite for prophecy and Torah. The Divine presence rests on something that is whole, not something that is lacking. Joy goes together with wholeness, completion and perfection – and sadness with lack and fragmentation. G-d is transcendent and will therefore reveal Himself to one whose joy is transcendent, simcha shel mitzva. (Based on Chidushei Agadot vol. 1, p. 14)
Ultimately Jewish life involves connecting up with the Divine and joy is a necessary element of connecting up with the Divine. When we are joyous we are whole and complete – and that enables the connection with the Divine that prayer and Torah, as well as prophecy and significant dreams demand.

This is in line with what we have seen about the importance of character in general in Judaism. The more our character is developed the more we emulate the Divine and are able to connect with G-d. The more we are joyous the more we emulate the Divine wholeness and enable a Divine connection.

Three Stories about the Vilna Gaon(Rabbi Eliahu of Vilna, the Gra zt”l)
What makes a man happy?
Once his student, the Gaon Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin zt”l, came to Vilna on Erev Shabbat. He didn’t go to visit the Gra on that day. He went to the bath house in honor of Shabbat, and before he started to get undressed a messenger came from the Gra calling for Rav Chaim to come. He hurried to his rav’s house and found him looking terrible: sickly, with a scarf wrapped around his head, and in a terrible mood.

He was shocked at the Gra’s appearance and stood without saying anything, afraid to ask what was going on. The Gra, though, when he saw that his student had entered, looked up and asked him to explain a difficult passage in a Yerushalmi he’s unable to understand. Would Rav Chaim be able to answer the Gra’s question? The Gaon Rav Chaim looked at his rav, “Who am I to understand and answer that which is perplexing in the eyes of the rav?” Answered the Gra, “’Open your mouth and let your words illuminate,’ ‘Two are better than one,’ (Kohelet 4:9); and ‘Each man should help his friend’ (Yishaya 41:6).”

Rav Chaim looked deeply into the difficult Yerushalmi. Hashem illuminated his eyes until he started to see an opening for an answer, but he still didn’t fully understand it. He relied on his holy rav that he would, through his depth of knowledge, smooth out any wrinkles in his explanation in order to come up with a clear and complete understanding of the Yerushalmi.

When he began to explain the gemara, the Gra’s face was transformed and he was full of joy. He immediately removed the scarf from his head and ordered his attendant to bring him some food to eat.

This was very surprising to Rav Chaim. He knew that the Gra’s longstanding custom was not to eat at all on Erev Shabbat afternoon. He went to the outer room where the Gra’s family was, and asked, “What is the reason behind the Gra suddenly eating on a Friday afternoon?” They explained to Rav Chaim that for three days the Gra had not eaten anything in the course of his efforts at trying to unravel the difficult Yerushalmi. (Shivchei Tzadikim, pp. 97-98)

The Strange Bargain
One year the students of the Gra were not able to find him a lulav and etrog for Sukkot. They finally found a very wealthy man who had one and offered to buy it from him at a very high price. He would not sell it for money but offered to make the following deal. If the Gra would give away his reward in the World to Come for that year’s mitzva of taking the lulav and etrog he would agree. The students deliberated among themselves about whether they felt it legitimate to agree to such a bargain on behalf of their rav. They finally decided to go through with it.

With a certain amount of trepidation they approached the Gra with thlulav and etrog and told him of the deal they had made, giving away his share in the World to Come for the mitzva.

The Gra was enraptured, full of great joy. “Finally,” he said, “I will be able to do a mitzva without any ulterior motive, even that of gaining a spiritual reward in the World to Come.”

Simchat Torah
They say that when the aron kodesh was opened on Simchat Torah and they brought out the Torah scrolls the Gra burst into wild, joyous dancing, which did not stop until they put them back.

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