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Apr052016

GROUNDBREAKING JOY AND LAUGHTER WORKSHOP

R ’ Amram Muell’s laughter and simcha workshops have earned international acclaim and attract thousands of participants, from Tzfas to Bangkok, from Tel Aviv to Hong Kong and New Delhi.* In a happy interview with Beis Moshiach, R’ Muell explains what lies behind one of the most successful Chabad workshops in the world. * About the difference between simcha and sasson, simcha, gila and rina. * What are medical clowns and what surprised him when he looked up simcha in the dictionary. * Also, Chassidishe tips for a happy life starting in this happy month of Adar

By Zalman Tzorfati

It is a little past 9:00 PM. RAmram Muell is standing facing an auditorium full of students in the Merkaz Ruchani (spiritual center) for students in the heart of Tel Aviv. The chairs are arranged in rows where the tired students sit after a long day of workshops and lectures on the topic of simcha. This is the final lecture which closes a Yom Iyun dedicated to the month of Adar.

R’ Muell appears last. On the way he gets a phone call from Michoel, the one in charge of organizing the event. He knows R’ Muell and the laughter workshop well. This is the sixth year that they are working together.

“Listen, it’s late already and they heard lectures about simcha all day. All the big guys were here already, R’ Yitzchak Fanger and many other speakers.” R’ Muell knows what he’s going to ask. “Go straight to the laughter part.”

But R’ Muell did not make the trip from Tzfas to Tel Aviv just to amuse tired students. He has a message to convey and this message is the main point. From his perspective, the jokes are just a means to appeal to the audience. “We use laughter as a means,” he will explain to me later. “Laughter is just a technique and the goal is to attain inner joy, to live life happily. That is the central message of the workshop.”

After circling the building a few times, “It’s a new place, they moved here recently,” Michoel comes out to find us. He’s a smiley fellow with a big knitted kippa covering almost his entire head and has long curly peios behind his ears. He takes us down to the basement level of a medium sized shopping center. The place is big enough and has a youthful décor with a couches corner and a cushion corner, a bar with light refreshments which looks as though it has gone through an entire day of lectures, a small library with various books for beginners, a small stage with a built-in sound system, and dozens of chairs arranged in five long rows.

Ronny takes the microphone, apologizes for the delay, “Buses from Tzfas, traffic and the like, so … please be seated!” He invites students to the final lecture. They slowly get seated as they try to check out the gray bearded rabbi with the pot belly, who is connecting the computer with the energy of an athlete. In general, anything R’ Muell does or says bursts forth from him with enthusiasm, as though he has just been hit by light from above.

“Now we will make practical all the theories you learned about today,” says Ronny. “At the end of this lecture you will leave with tears in your eyes – tears of joy.” Judging by what the atmosphere is like after nearly an hour and a half, it was definitely a success.

R’ Muell exchanges his black hat for a clown hat, attacks the stage and takes it over with hand motions and facial expressions. For the next ninety minutes, he captivates the crowd and takes them on a fascinating journey in search of joy, an hour and a half roller-coaster ride between deep ideas of Chassidus and uncontrollable laughter, between maamarim of the Alter Rebbe and the Mitteler Rebbe and enthralling contemporary stories. At the end of the workshop, after the crowd has calmed down a bit, students approach him and ask questions. He refers one to Ascent, another to a Chabad House where the man lives and where R’ Muell knows the shliach personally. He invites a third to a Shabbos meal and expands his circle of mekuravim. A fourth one asks for tips on relationships and R’ Muell quickly improvises a brief lecture on relationships based on Kabbala.

The month of Adar is peak season for R’ Amram Muell’s laughter and simcha workshops. During Adar there is hardly a night without a lecture. R’ Muell, a dancer, actor, and stage director in the past, harnesses the secrets of the profession and his huge talent for hafatza purposes. Nearly every evening he performs, lectures, runs workshops on Judaism in Eretz Yisroel and abroad, in a variety of forums covering the entire spectrum of communities, religious or otherwise.

“You rose to the challenge – they sat there glued to their seats,” I complimented him as we left the center at nearly midnight.

“What did you add in the hour and a half that you spoke that they did not hear from other lecturers all day?” I asked.

“Chassidus,” he says with his usual enthusiasm. “They listened to G-dliness. From all the other lecturers they hear intellect, intellect, and more intellect. From me, they hear Chassidus, mainly sichos and maamarim from the Rebbe, the previous Rebbe, the Mitteler Rebbe and the Alter Rebbe.”

“What I do in all the lectures is take the highest, abstract concepts in Tanya, maamarim of the Rebbe, of the Alter Rebbe, and the Mitteler Rebbe, of all the Rebbeim, and bring them down in simple, clear language for all audiences. There are people who come over to me after a lecture and say that I turned their life around.”

SIMCHA AND LAUGHTER AND THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THEM

In your workshop you speak mainly about simcha but you always bring it back to laughter. What’s the difference between laughter and simcha?

That’s a great question. The goal is simcha, of course. That’s the idea, the basis of all of Judaism and the teachings of Chassidus. “Serve Hashem with joy.” Today everyone talks about simcha in all groups and even the non-Jewish scientific world recognizes the value of happiness in all sorts of areas. But who took simcha and turned it into avodas Hashem, to a way of life? Chassidus. If you read the literature about the early days of Chassidus like Seifer HaZichronos and Seifer HaToldos, you see that the attitude toward simcha was as something marginal and even negative to a certain degree. Then came Chassidus with ideas of serving Hashem with joy and “because you did not serve Hashem with joy …” and turned simcha into a central component in the service of Hashem.

Actually, Chassidus did not invent anything. It is all written in the Torah, in Chazal. Came the Baal Shem Tov, the Alter Rebbe, and illuminated these subjects. They placed an emphasis on it and turned it into a central theme in Judaism. That is the goal of every workshop and lecture, to lead to actual simcha.

Laughter, on the other hand, is an expression of simcha. When a person is happy, he expresses it in various ways which, by the way, is connected with various forms of simcha. Each type of simcha is expressed differently. When a person is happy, his simcha can be expressed in song, dance, shouting, hugging people he is close to, smiling, and laughing. Laughter is a mode of expression for simcha. Just as thought is a garment for the soul, laughter is a garment for simcha. It is just like it is written that the soul powers have the ability to influence the soul – “hearts are drawn after one’s actions.” Just as physical clothing affect us, or just as a good thought affects reality, “think positively and it will be good,” so too simcha can be generated by external means.

It can be song, a happy tune, and even a niggun d’veikus, or dancing. There is a sicha in which the Rebbe says that when a Jew is unsuccessful in being happy, the solution is to start dancing and this will lead to simcha. We see from here that things that are generally the result of being happy can also be the catalyst for simcha.

You referred to types of simcha. What do you mean by that?

When I started putting together my lecture on simcha, I investigated what the average Israeli knows about the subject. I opened a dictionary that is used in all the public schools and turned to the entry on simcha. Aside from the definition like “when people get together for a party,” the definition of simcha was: gil, sasson. I turned to the entry on gil and found “simcha, sasson.” Then I turned to the entry for sasson where it says “gil, simcha.”

The Maharal writes that in Lashon Ha’kodesh there are no synonyms. When two words are close in meaning, each word has a different connotation. Simcha is an excellent example. We all are familiar with the seventh blessing of the sheva brachos, “Asher bara sasson v’simcha, chassan v’kalla, gila, rina, ditza, v’chedva …”

All those words are forms of joy. What is simcha? Simcha is the revelation of the pleasure of the soul. The soul is the source of life for the entire body. The highest level of the soul is oneg/delight or pleasure. When a person rejoices he is filled with oneg, meaning, his body is energized. The Alter Rebbe writes that in a physical fight there is no doubt that the happy one will overcome the sad one even if the sad one is physically stronger. This is because when a person is happy he is full of life. His soul fills his body with energy. When a person is sad or depressed, his energy dissipates. He can be physically strong but lifeless, which is why he moves more slowly and heavily.

But simcha has various forms and as a result of this, there are also various expressions of simcha. When a person passed by the Rebbe for dollars or before going in for yechidus, that was one type of joy, and when a person wins a lottery, that’s another form of joy.

Sasson, for example, is the joy of the mashpia. It’s a joy in the heart, more inward and less revealed externally. The Rebbe Rayatz writes that this is the joy of a chassan.

Simcha is the joy of the mekabel, the simcha of the kalla. When the heart is full of simcha, it bursts outward, “how do you dance before the bride,” this is the revelation of simcha.

Gila is a joy that comes from reaching a very lofty state or from a display of closeness from a great person. On the one hand, you are very happy; on the other hand, you tremble in awe, as it says in T’hillim, “rejoice with trembling”; this is the joy of Rosh HaShana.

Rina is the joy that comes after sadness, after a crisis, like Hashem who comforts the Jewish people after the churban, “roni v’simchi bas Tziyon.”

Renana is another form of simcha, when the simcha is mixed with yearning, like two people who love one another who meet after not seeing one another for a long time and they burst into tears. This is tremendous joy mixed with great yearning.

And then there are chedva, ditza, and tzahala. Each one has a different meaning. Chedva is intellectual joy, intellectual pleasure, like as it says, “Vayichad Yisro.” Tzahala are the sounds that accompany simcha. A person sometimes shouts and screams from happiness; this is tzahala, as it says in Megillas Esther, “And the city of Shushan tzohalo v’somaycha.” Ditza is the bodily movement that goes along with simcha like jumping, dancing.

The idea of simcha is starting to gain traction in the world. Even science and conventional medicine have started to recognize the great benefits of joy in healing. So why is it still so hard for us to be happy? How is it that we don’t get up in the morning and dance? Why do psychologists call depression and sadness the disease of the generation?

There are many reasons for the lack of joy. Fear, worries, frustration, despair. They all block the soul from being happy. There are people who unknowingly are constantly living life in fear. Fear of their environment, social fears. Today, modern medicine has discovered what the Rambam wrote 900 years ago, that when a person is happy and he thinks positive thoughts, he expands the functions of the soul and strengthens the body. It’s not some random thing that doctors talk about obesity and depression as widespread problems in the western world. They are connected. When you have everything, when there is nothing to strive for, you start to fall. When you are not connected to spirituality and holiness, the great abundance gives you a feeling of emptiness and this lack of meaning in life is very dangerous.

This is why this workshop touches so many people. And I give it to all kinds of people, from all walks of life. Wherever I go people are so enthused by the messages that they try to bring me to their family, their friends, to their workplace, etc.

When people hear the idea of simply being happy, without winning the lottery or having a special surprise or gift, just like that, without a reason, it changes their lives. It changes their way of thinking. I see this a lot with young people. Often they are looking for their identity. They are trying to find their place in society and in life and they are more sensitive at this point, and are even dependent on the reactions of society to the point of extremism. And when society lets them down, the break and pressure can be devastating. When I speak to young people at this stage, it is sometimes a matter of saving lives.

HEALING LAUGHTER

So what’s the idea of laughing at the end of the workshop?

Researchers have discovered many amazing things that joy and laughter cause. We know that doctors and scientists speak about laughter and simcha as a type of healing. When a person laughs, his brain releases hormones that strengthen the immune system and help the body handle threats to its well-being.

This is the idea behind medical clowns. It’s not just any clown who goes to cheer people up in the hospital, like musicians who visit patients and sing, although they also do good work. The medical clown literally helps a person recover through joy and laughter.

Actually, the laughter workshops were developed as preventive medicine. The researchers’ idea was that if laughter and happiness can heal, then let’s get people to be happy all the time and that will help them not get sick in the first place.

But we don’t need the researchers to know how great simcha is. Whatever they discovered in recent decades was already written in the Torah and especially in p’nimius ha’Torah, in Chassidus and Kabbala.

THE AVODA OF SIMCHA

Practically speaking, what do you recommend that we Chassidim do to be happy?

First, if you are speaking about Chassidim, then Chassidim know that there is no hocus-pocus. Everything requires work and training, including simcha. The avoda of simcha is part of avodas Hashem. The Rebbe Rayatz writes in one of his letters that by nature he is mara sh’chora (melancholy), but he trained himself to achieve mara levana (cheerfulness). In Chassidus there is no substitute for real inner work.

To attain simcha you first need to strengthen your trust in Hashem. When a person has bitachon he has no worries and fears; he removes all blockages. That’s the “veer from evil.” The Rebbe also says that one of the factors that make a Jew happy is contemplating that Hashem gave us the mitzvos. Imagine a very important person who asks you to do something. That would make you enormously happy just because of his stature and that he asked you to do something. All the more so when the Creator of the world asks us to do things; that should make us elated.

Another tip from the Rebbe is to learn Tanya. The Rebbe writes that learning Tanya makes you happy. And in general, learning p’nimius ha’Torah leads to genuine inner joy. The Mitteler Rebbe writes that humility is a partner with simcha, while arrogance is a partner of sadness. So that is also something to work on.

How do you explain that joy and laughter are popular topics these days?

Of course it is connected to the Geula. Geula is about Moshiach. Moshiach, in Hebrew, consists of the same letters as yismach, as it says, “then [with the Geula] our mouths will be filled with laughter.” And we know that Yitzchok is called Yitzchok, in the future tense, because in the future the Jewish nation will laugh and exult and thank Hashem. The Rebbe says in a sicha that the time has already come for this. It’s part of the idea that the world is ready for the Geula that laughter and joy are seeping into the world.

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