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The attribute of simcha, which is something we all want, is accessible.  The fact that a Jew feels that its hard is an indication that he is on the wrong track, because true simcha is an expression of an inner truth and understanding, traits that are implanted in us all. Still, we see that sadness and depression undermine the functioning of thousands of talented and intelligent people and drains the joie-de-vivre out of many others.  Why is it so hard for us to attain simcha? * An interview with RShloma Majeski, menahel of Machon Chana and author of the book, “The Chassidic Approach to Joy.” * Part 1 of 2.

The topic of simcha is associated with the Chassidic movement.  The question is, why? Isn’t simcha for everyone, whether they identify with Chassidus or not, even goyim (l’havdil)?

The simcha demanded of a Jew is a simcha that results from translating ideals into practical action.  Chassidus teaches us that the life force, and even the very existence of the world, depends entirely on Hashem, “at every time and moment all of creation is vivified, ex nihilo, from the wisdom of the Blessed One who provides life for all.”  Every component of Creation is united utterly with G-d.  Without the G-dly force providing it with life, nothing could exist.

This leads us to an understanding of divine providence.  Whatever happens, not just what happens with human beings, but even with plant life and inanimate things, comes as a direct result of G-d’s will.  And not only every essential being in our world exists thanks to the G-dly life within it; also, anything that occurs in the world happens because Hashem made it so.  Awareness of these concepts brings us directly to simcha because a person who realizes that whatever happens to him is controlled by G-d is certainly happy.

If a person is lacking in this simcha, it is as though he is saying that what happens to him is not connected with G-d, G-d forbid.  Or G-d brought this bitter experience upon him and He seemingly isn’t good to him.  This is a heretical thought and is akin to denying G-d.  A person who believes that Hashem is responsible for everything that occurs and believes that G-d is good, must perforce believe that everything that happens to him is good.  And it “just seems to be bad and suffering but in truth, no evil descends from above and everything is good.”

If a person gets up and announces that everything that happened did not come from above, he denies G-d’s oneness.  And even if someone refrains from announcing it, but acts in a way that expresses this thought, for example, by being sad, it is as though he is announcing it.

Actions speak louder than words.  Therefore, a person who allows himself to be sad is denying G-d’s oneness.  He denies the fact that everything in the world and everything that occurs are constantly connected to Hashem and are controlled by His divine providence.

This is the reason why Chassidus, which placed such an emphasis on the connection of the creation with the Creator, focuses so much on simcha.  In addition to what simcha contributes to our avodas Hashem – for when a person is sad he is weak and susceptible to his evil inclination – something much bigger is taking place here.  Simcha and that which oppose it are connected with the awareness of the unity of G-d and His constant divine providence.

A person should always be happy, knowing that everything that happens in his life comes from Above and nothing is coincidental.  How can this abstract knowledge affect our emotions? A person becomes sad when something tragic happens in his life even though he knows that everything is from Hashem.  Is it the occurrence itself or the context in which he places the event?

Let us clarify the question.  Something happens to a person but the person doesn’t have the intelligence to understand that what happened harmed him.  He won’t feel any pain.

When do we feel pain? When we understand the significance of what happened.  Shlomo HaMelech said, “Increase in knowledge, increase in pain.”  So when a person feels pain it’s for two reasons – the painful event and his awareness of its sad significance.

“Awareness” means a person’s ability to understand.  But there is a further point here.  It is possible for a person to understand the painfulness of a situation and choose not to internalize this understanding, for as long as he is alert to what happened, he will feel pained.  But he can choose to not be conscious of it, not to pay attention to what happened.  If he is able to control his mind and divert his thoughts, then he won’t feel any pain.

R’ Yisroel Taub, the first Modzitzer Rebbe (b. 1849) was a prolific composer of beautiful niggunim.  In 1913, he traveled to Berlin for an operation.  He opted not to undergo anesthesia.  During the operation he composed the majestic and lengthy niggun Ezkera Elokim comprised of 36 sections each contrasting in nature.

This is not a story about a Rebbe and a miracle he performed, although he was a holy man and also did miracles.  He concentrated completely on the niggun so that he did not even feel any pain during the operation.

We are not Admurim and this level of concentration is beyond us, but we can identify similar things in our lives.  Here is an example. A person returns home from work.  While he was on the subway something happened that upset him and now he is entering the house in a bad mood.  Then the phone rings. It’s a friend he did not speak to in months and is now calling long distance.  The two friends start talking and their conversation lasts half an hour.  When he hangs up the phone, he realizes that in the past half an hour he did not feel upset.  Why was that? The upsetting incident remained extant, so how did the phone call change his feeling? The answer is that it didn’t. It changed the focus of his attention.  While he spoke to his friend he did not think about what happened on the train.

This also explains the fact that there are people who went through horrific times like the Holocaust and were still able to rehabilitate themselves and go on to live happy lives.  In contrast to them, there are people who misplace their car keys who feel overwhelmed by this “crisis.”  It’s not so much about what happens but to what extent a person allows it to affect him.  That leads us to another point.

Sometimes, we hold on to memories of some unpleasant incident far longer than the incident deserves.  We fixate on it day and night, and the nonstop ruminating on it intensifies the pain associated with it.

There is an alternative.  The moment we stop thinking about it, the pain will stop.  And here is where many of us make a mistake.  Most people think that they can control their actions and speech. They know they can decide whether to do something or not, to say something or not, but when it comes to thoughts they are sure they are powerless because thoughts are uncontrollable.

It is true that it is hard to control one’s thoughts because unlike speech and action, thought is unceasing.  There isn’t a moment when a person stops thinking.  But what will a person think about? This is under our control.  We have the ability to concentrate our thoughts on whatever we choose.

If a person only understood that he has the ability to stop thinking about a certain thing, he would immediately let go of that thought.  The moment he does, he will stop feeling so much pain and sorrow.

You maintain that a person should be serene and happy by diverting his mind from thinking disturbing thoughts.  When we speak about substantive psychological issues (and not just passing occurrences in our lives) isn’t it better for a person to feel the pain when things aren’t as they should be so that the pain spurs him on to improve the situation? If a person doesn’t feel the pain, the problem (whether material or spiritual) will remain unresolved?

Awareness of pain and sadness has not proven to be beneficial.  Very often, sadness has a paralyzing effect which drains a person of strength and prevents him from solving his problems.

You can divide sadness into two general categories: 1) that which spurs on positive change, and 2) that which strengthens the negative situation.  How can we know which category our feeling belongs to?  Actually, while we are struggling with feelings of guilt, regret or hurt, it is likely that it will be difficult to figure out which category it is.  Only after a while can we tell, based on the results.

For example, a person has a hard time sleeping despite the late hour because he thinks, “There were so many things I wanted to do last month and I didn’t do them.  I didn’t do this and I didn’t do that …” He continues this train of thought until he concludes, “I am a failure.” Then all the stress of the month weighs on him and he feels frustrated and depressed. What does he do? He decides he can’t deal with the world anymore and he pulls the cover over his head and goes to sleep.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration but still, this feeling can leave a person empty of any desire to take action except to escape the world.  However, in the same situation, a person can arrive at a completely different conclusion and reaction.  Instead of escaping in bed, he can muster the energy and be determined to finish what he needs to do.

What brings on that response? His bad feeling about what he achieved. It gives him the push to achieve.

In Tanya, the Alter Rebbe differentiates between these two bad feelings.  The feeling that deadens a person, which we need to avoid, he calls atzvus, and the aggravation that spurs a person on to positive action he calls merirus.  A person needs to ask himself: Why do I feel upset? Is it connected with the past or the future? If the aggravation is about something that occurred and all that the person can think is how terrible it was, that is atzvus.  There is no benefit in focusing on these thoughts.  The event is in the past and we cannot change the past.  What he should do is completely dismiss these thoughts.

However, if a person is upset about a certain problem and he decides to do something about it, that is merirus.  It is aggravation that has some benefit.  True, the person feels guilty and has regret, but his feelings are directed toward change.  He constantly asks himself: What can I do to fix the situation? Or, how can I ensure that this doesn’t happen again?

Does simcha mean you cannot or should not cry about your situation?

I will answer you with a story.  R’ Chatshe Feigin was a mashpia in an underground yeshiva in Russia. He was once farbrenging with the talmidim and he made certain demands of them.  He told them that he wants to see greater devotion on their part toward davening, learning, and improving their middos.  He spoke heatedly and addressed each one personally, pointing out those things each talmid needed to put his efforts into.

The talmidim were very inspired by what he said and many started to cry.  Suddenly, the talmid who had been on guard outside came running and informed them that the KGB was conducting a search in the area.

The danger was imminent. All the participants could be sent to forced labor camps.  Immediately, various suggestions were put forth.  One said, “Let’s try to escape,” another one said to close the light and hope that the darkness would hide their presence.  A third thought there should be newspapers and textbooks on the table to show that they were occupied with permissible activities.

Thank G-d, the KGB did not get to their room.  They left the area as suddenly as they had come and the mashpia and his talmidim were able to sit down again and continue the farbrengen.  The mashpia said to them: I just saw something very strange.  Maybe you can explain it to me.

The talmidim looked at him questioningly and he said, tell me, what bothers you more – spiritual difficulties or material difficulties?

The talmidim who were honest with themselves and him immediately said they were more bothered by material difficulties.

How was it, he asked, that when I spoke to you about your spiritual circumstances, you cried, but when you heard that the KGB was in the area and your lives were in danger, nobody cried?

One of the talmidim looked at him in surprise and said, what did you expect us to do? Should we have sat and cried? What good would that do? We had to plan what to do, to run away or hide before they came.

R’ Feigin was waiting for that answer and he said, “Aha, I understand.  When you had to act in a hurry, you knew that crying wouldn’t help and you had to take action.  So why, when we speak of spiritual things, does crying seem the right thing to do?”

He explained this concept until they got it.  The talmidim understood that crying can be used as an excuse, but it doesn’t solve anything.  The only thing crying accomplishes is that it helps one unburden himself of emotion.  But if a person is serious in his desire to change, he has no time to cry.  Every minute is precious and can be used to solve the problem, and this is how he should behave.


A Chassid, aside from being a husband and father with heavy responsibilities is also a Chassid who creates an environment.  He has the responsibility the Rebbe assigned him.  A Chassid is always an example to others.  Doesn’t this responsibility weigh heavily on the simcha he is supposed to have? Is it possible to have a goal and purpose while simultaneously feeling free and unburdened?

Yes. The simcha that Chassidus demands of a person, despite his having responsibilities, is a simcha which comes from kabbalas ol.  On the one hand, a person is freed from focusing on himself.  But he is not immersed in emptiness; he is connected to a Higher Power.  These two things, the freedom and the connection are both sources for enormous joy.

Take a drunkard for example.  When you look at him, he seems happy.  He shouts and sings even as he wallows in vomit and has not a cent in his pocket.  Seeing him, a person needs to ask himself – do I, like the drunkard, wallow in refuse, i.e., throw aside my human potential? Or, as a person with kabbalas ol, do I take responsibility but transfer the ownership of that responsibility to my Creator? 

The drunkard’s happiness is destructive; he destroys his ability to build a life for himself.  In contrast, true simcha is associated with transcending oneself and more – strengthening the connection to the G-dly spark hidden in man.  That is how one builds personal strength.  When a person experiences genuine joy, his strength increases and he is able to overcome personal obstacles that in the past interfered with his functioning.  He is open and friendly with others and fills them with simcha too.  He radiates bitachon in Hashem and thanksgiving for all the good G-d gave him.

There is both a destructive form of joy, as well as a joy that makes a person stronger than he was before. When a person allows himself to be free, with no direction, this is destructive.  Picture what would happen if you took your hands off the steering wheel while driving quickly down an intercity highway with a lot of traffic.  The highway of life demands our attention no less than any other highway.

A person who does not believe in G-d and does not acknowledge the G-dly foundation within him will either be completely immersed in himself or he will live an empty life.  There is no other option for him, because he is unaware of anything outside of his own existence.  When a person believes in G-d and understands that Hashem is the very foundation of his own existence, he can be truly free of himself.  Only then can he feel true happiness.

Licentiousness means we are free because we think we are lower than what we really are.  The person forgets himself and anything else that has any value and meaning.  In extreme cases, it means to be a drunk, something which causes a person to lose all self-control, which then finds expression in far coarser behaviors.  This person thinks the only way to be happy is by forgetting everything, aside from sensory pleasure at this moment.  He lives for the here and now.

This can be extremely destructive, for when a person evades his responsibilities he can harm himself, his family, and the people around him.

Positive simcha is also liberating, but it is a freedom of an entirely different sort.  The person does not lose control, he relinquishes control. When a person feels true joy he is free.  But at the same time he connects to something higher, to Hashem.  He is freed of his petty ego and allows that aspect of his inner identity, which is far deeper and far more genuine, to come to the fore.

This is one of the reasons why simcha is considered a high level in the service of Hashem. This selfless bond of a person with Hashem, irrespective of the many advantages he gains from saving himself from depression, is a goal we should all strive for. 

This is also the function of Shabbos and Yom Tov when we rise above the tumult of material life and feel real joy.

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