Since 2012, the United Nations has conducted an annual World Happiness Report. It ranks 156 countries by the collective happiness of their populations using weighted metrics derived from per capita GDP, degree of social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption. According to the 2018 World Happiness Report, America ranked 18th in the world, but we have been on a downward trajectory over the past decade. Israel was 11th, if one can measure such a thing.
Of course, this has nothing to do with happiness as each of us experiences it individually.
Am I happy?
How do I get it? And what is it? Perhaps it is a chemical release that we can measure through neurobiology. Maybe it is a feeling of purpose in life, or the awareness of being wanted. Perhaps happiness is something we experience when we indulge our appetites.
One of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Parashat Re’eh, is simchah – happiness, or joy. The Hebrew root sin, mem, chet occurs exactly one time each in the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. It appears twelve times in the Book of Deuteronomy. Seven are in Parashat Re’eh.
All seven occurrences contain similar elements. The Israelites are told to rejoice when they bring various kinds of voluntary and mandatory offerings to the Temple.
Here is one example, describing the observance of the holiday of Shavuot:
V’samachta lifnei Adonai Elohekha… You shall rejoice before the LORD your God with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name. (Deuteronomy 16:11)
You, or rather, the Israelite, must gather together with all of the members of his household: his wife, children, and servants. Plus, he invites the poor and dispossessed to join with him. They are all to assemble “at the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name,” that is to say, the Temple in Jerusalem. There, they are to bring a freewill offering from the recent harvest, as an observance of Shavuot.
Note that it is not God who is doing the rejoicing. It’s people – us. This is not the case in other books of the Torah, which emphasize the burning up of meat to send up a pleasing odor to the Lord. In Deuteronomy, we worship God by celebrating together and creating a mood of festivity among ourselves. When Israelites brought one of these offerings, they did so as an acknowledgement and expression of thanks for the blessings that had been provided by God.
The parashah implies that the recipe for true simchah requires several things: for us to be together, for us to share our bounty with the poor, for us to eat and drink, and for us to acknowledge that any blessings we get to enjoy in this world are ultimately gifts from God, and not merely the products of our own efforts.
Finally, by emphasizing that all of this must take place in the Sanctuary, and on specific occasions, the Torah channels our expressions of joy into sacred contexts. After all, there can be danger in unbounded releases of happiness. Parties can get out of hand.
Does the destruction of the Temple and the ending of sacrifices mean that we no longer worship God with simchah?
The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, placed a great emphasis on the idea of simchah as the central component of Judaism. He offered an alternative approach to Jewish life, which in his day was so focused on intellectual achievement that it had lost the essence of what it meant to be Jewish.
All joy, even its lowest forms, originates in holiness and is a gift from God. The Baal Shem Tov especially liked the following story from the Talmud.
Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah used to frequent the market at Lapat where Elijah [the Prophet] often appeared to him. Once he asked [the prophet], “Is there anyone in this market who has a share in the world to come?”
[Elijah] replied, “No…” While [they were thus conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two have a share in the world to come.”
Rabbi Beroka then approached [the two men] and asked them, “What is your occupation?”
They replied, “We are jesters, when we see people depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarrelling we strive hard to make peace between them.” (BT Ta’anit 22a)
One would imagine that the marketplace of a major Persian city would be filled with worthy people. Scholars, merchants, philanthropists, civic leaders – many passersby who should merit a place the world to come. Yet the only people worthy enough are the jesters.
The Baal Shem Tov’s great grandson, Rebbe Nahman of Breslov constantly strove to find ways to serve God with simchah. Of his many beloved stories and teachings, the most well-known is: mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid. “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.” (Likutei Moharan, II 24)
It sounds nice, and makes for nice lyrics to a niggun, but it is kind of a strange thing to say. We usually think of happiness as something which we strive to achieve. But a mitzvah?! A commandments?! Perhaps we might suggest that a life lived according to the Torah can lead a person to happiness. But to suggest that there is a requirement to be happy seems unrealistic.
And even more far-fetched is the notion of tamid, always. Can anyone achieve a constant state of happiness. And if so, could the rest of us stand to be around such a person?
Rebbe Nachman knew this well. He personally suffered from severe mood swings and depression. He lost two children, and his wife died when he was thirty five. He remarried almost immediately, contracted tuberculosis, and died at the age of thirty eight. So what does Rebbe Nahman mean when he talks about simchah?
He teaches that it is in a person’s nature to be drawn to marah shechorah, black bitterness, and atzvut, sadness, from the travails of life. We all suffers afflictions. It would seem to demand all of our efforts to achieve a constant state of joy.
Every one of us has a lev nishbar, Rebbe Nachman continues, a broken heart. This broken heart is not something to suppress, nor is it something to wallow in, as that can lead us further down the path of black bitterness. He advises instead that we should dedicate a fixed time each day during which to break our hearts and engage in honest conversation with God. Then, we can be freed up to experience joy.
Indeed, Rebbe Nachman did this. We have preserved many of Rebbe Nachman’s own spontaneous prayers that he recited in his daily conversations – or battles, as he described them – with God. Embrace the brokenness and sadness, and then be freed up for joy.
Rebbe Nachman advised his chasidim to sing, and to dance. He encouraged silliness, and lightheartedness. “Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks,” he taught. “If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.” (Advice, Breslov Research Institute. p. 254) Rebbe Nachman fervently believed that our spiritual joy could make an impact in the real world.
Shortly before Purim in 1803, Rebbe Nachman arrived in the town of Terhovitza, in Ukraine, for his annual visit. (Likutey Moharan, Volume II, #10, p. 115) Czar Alexander I had recently issued an ukase, a decree instructing the issuance of “Enactments Concerning the Jews.” This would eventually lead to laws for mandatory conscription and compulsory secular education.
Rebbe Nachman introduced one of his teachings by stating: “When, God forbid, there are decrees affecting the Jewish people, through dancing and hand-clapping these decrees can be mitigated.”
After he completed the lengthy and intricate lesson, Rebbe Nachman remarked: “This is what I said! We are hearing news of decrees against the Jews. But the days of Purim are near and Jews will dance and clap, and thereby mitigate the decree!”
At the Purim festivities that year, Rebbe Nachman danced even more fervently than usual. “I have delayed the decrees for twenty-odd years,” he reflected afterward.
The decrees did not come until almost twenty five years later, in 1827, sixteen years after Rebbe Nachman’s death.
I don’t know if we have come any closer to defining simchah, but Parashat Re’eh and Rebbe Nachman offer paths to achieving it. In the Torah, Simchah is experienced when we join with other people, including those without the means, to express gratitude for the gifts we have been given. Spiritual simchah, expressed at holy moments and locations, is worship of God.
For Rebbe Nachman, it is the highest form of worship. And even though life is difficult, unfair, and filled with sadness; and even though some people’s physical and psychological burdens seem to far exceed those of others, our ultimate task in life is to cultivate a state of constant joy. This can only be done by acknowledging the sadness. Maybe it is the black bitterness itself that makes true simchah possible.
Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simchah tamid. “It is a great mitzvah to be in a state of joy always.”