Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have been challenged finding joy in life given my present situation. My former financial standing has been considerably lessened by the recent downturn, putting my retirement in question. On top of that I have some physical issues, and some more with my kids. Does Judaism have a formula for happiness?
A great Chassidic master, R’ Nachman of Breslav, was famous for his statement which formed the foundation of his Chassidic court: “Mitzvah gedolah li’hiyot b’simcha tamid,” or “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous at all times.” How can simcha, joy, be a mitzvah? A mitzvah is a commandment; how can one be commanded to do so, especially “at all times”?
Let us focus on the Mishnah, which states: “Who is a rich man? One who has joy in his portion.” This is a very new lesson in the definition of rich; it’s not defined by what’s in your bank account, rather it’s a state of mind. If one has joy in her stock portfolio, even if it’s way down, she is, according to the Mishnah, rich.
Let’s go a step further: The Mishnah does not say “one who is satisfied with his portion,” rather “has joy in his portion.” If the “portion” is not so significant, what is the source of that joy?
The answer to this is twofold. Firstly, it is predicated upon the core Jewish belief of trust. Trust teaches us that whatever our situation is, monetarily and otherwise, at any given time, it is exactly what we’re supposed to have at that moment. The Al-mighty is constantly watching out for us and giving us, or withholding from us, exactly what we’re due. This foundational Jewish belief brings one to a state of inner peace and calm. Those feelings are the underpinnings of simcha, joy. Worries and fears are the antithesis of joy; tranquility and serenity are its basis.
Secondly is the Jewish focus on the many blessings which are contained within life itself. The Jewish sages of old wrote entire books on focusing upon the myriad blessings which occur every moment of our existence, things we take for granted due to their commonness. This is why Jews make 100 blessings every day, to literally count our blessings and take joy in the gifts we do have, rather than focus upon what we don’t. To be truly cognizant of all of one’s blessings in life will bring joy into whatever portion we have, because it is, indeed, so much!
These concepts allow us to build up within ourselves reservoirs of simcha which can take us through the more difficult times, like a canteen of water in the desert.
This brings to mind my grandmother, of blessed memory, who was never a well-to-do woman. In her final years she would look upon the picture of her grandchildren and exclaim, “See that, that’s my million dollars!”
I’m presently reading a beautiful book, “Holy Woman,” on the life of Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer (Shaar Press). Despite experiencing the hellish hardships of Auschwitz, she was always full of joy. She learned from her mother that joy is not the result of a particular life situation, rather the cause of a well-lived life. Joy is a choice, not an outcome. Rebbetzin Kramer was the only one left alive of all her siblings to be used by the sadistic Dr. Mengele for his inhuman experiments, leaving her barren. When asked by the author how she could always be happy despite not having the children she so craved to mother, she replied, “What! I should be both barren and sad?!”
The German Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl used his experiences in Auschwitz to pioneer a new field of psychology, logotherapy. In his “Man’s Search for Meaning” he outlines the subhuman conditions and barbarism of the camps, and how he saw in some of the inmates, including himself, that how one reacts to those conditions is a choice. All life, even that of the lowest “quality,” has meaning, given that one looks for that meaning. These two Jews embodied in many ways the Jewish concepts of joy.
If Rebbetzin Kramer and Victor Frankl could find meaning and joy in the abyss of hell on earth, certainly we can do so even if our finances or other life situations are less than perfect!
Itzhak Perlman, the violin virtuoso, once made his slow ascent to the stage, dragging his polio-stricken legs to the chair for his concert. When he began, one string snapped. Everyone knows one can only play a violin with four strings, so the audience braced themselves for the slow re-attaching of his leg braces and his descent off the stage to have his instrument fixed and return. After a moment’s contemplation, Perlman suddenly played his piece, with his genius compensating for the lost string. When he ended, there was a shocked, prolonged silence in the room, followed by a thunderous standing ovation. Perlman raised his hand to silence the audience, saying, “Sometimes you need to play music with what you have left.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,