Happiness’ role in Judaism

By Rabbi Dan Lewin

When you are feeling sad or stressed, and someone notices your mood and says “Be happy,” how does that comment make you feel? Do you want to tell them to get lost, that such cheap lip service only makes matters worse? — obviously nobody chooses to feel bad. Or maybe their words serve as a positive reminder to shift gears; it gives you comfort amidst darkness. Usually, the impact of such advice depends on the person offering it.

The role of happiness in Judaism is clear and unique — no other religion or philosophy emphasizes its importance or explains its potent effects in the same way. While not a mitzvah (explicit Torah commandment) itself, joy is a vital ingredient that enlivens each mitzvah. This emotion, an expansion of the soul, possesses the power to pierce the heavens and alter outcomes. It serves as the chief gateway to connect to the Creator.

However, with greater merit comes greater resistance. The inner opponent seeks to paint the world black and fill your mind with a sense of doom. Once the emotional trajectory spirals downward, you become vulnerable to negative feelings, temporary escapes and poor choices. Conversely, joy fosters mental agility, hope and enhanced clarity.

In our control? 

Now, the question arises: Is happiness truly a choice? After all, it’s not merely an action or guided thought — which we can more easily master — but a deeper emotion. Just as nobody would tell someone in physical pain to feel pleasure, emotional pain is not easily exchanged at will. Yet, some people assume that aspects of happiness or factors contributing to it are within our control, aside from cases of mental illness.

For a true choice to exist, there must be at least two competing options. Those who are naturally more jovial might not need to work at being happy, as there is less internal resistance. On the flip side, someone so deeply trapped in suffering may be unable to climb out, feeling as though positive emotions have been drained from their system.

Someone experiencing the opposite internal pull who is able — through certain thoughts and actions — to change their perspective and “be happy” has made an independent, monumental decision. These ongoing choices enable such a person to offer genuine comfort to others. (Or even those who haven’t struggled themselves but possess proper empathy and love, can send a message that resonates.)

Thus, when they say “be happy” or “things will get better,” you can listen. That small remark may contain the same words spoken by someone else, yet it carries an entirely different light.

The underrated festival

This week, we encounter a mirror concept on a more global scale as we continue to read the Haftarah from prophet Isaiah, renowned as the “comforting prophet,” during the Seven Weeks of Consolation for the destruction of the Temples.  Last week marked the observance of the saddest day on the Jewish calendar: Tisha B’Av, when Jews worldwide gather in shul, fasting, mourning and reciting lamentations. Yesterday, however, brought a completely different vibe as we celebrated Tu B’Av — the 15th day of the month.

Tu B’Av is often described as a holiday of love and romance, when the “daughters of Jerusalem would dance in the vineyards” and unmarried men would find their match. But portraying the occasion merely as some type of Valentine’s Day is superficial and misleading. In fact, the Mishna boldly declares, “there were no festivals as great for the Jewish people as the days of Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur.”

The holiness of Yom Kippur is evident, but the greatness of Tu B’Av is mysterious — a relatively trivial event in the middle of a period marked with the darkest memories of despair. We decrease in happiness already from the onset of the month. So, what makes this seemingly mundane day so unique — different from other festive dates — to the point that the sages of the Talmud compare it to the heights of holiness?

Ruin and repair

Some commentaries offer a more symbolic significance. On the 15th day of the month, the moon reaches its peak in its cycle. As the Jewish people are often likened to the moon, this day reflects a time of strength. But this explanation fails to address why the celebration on the 15th of this month is singled out over other festivals such as Sukkot and Pesach.

Delving into esoteric sources, Tu B’Av — the full moon — takes on a deeper meaning as it signifies the repair that follows an intense period of loss and sorrow. According to the axiom, the ability to rise after a fall is not just recovery but a destiny to reach a superior level than before: “The greater the fall, the greater the subsequent ascent.”

More concretely, the happiness of Tu B’Av is directly related — historically and psychologically — to the sadness of Tisha B’Av. Tradition recounts that on the original Tisha B’Av night, it was decreed that the generation of the wilderness would not enter Israel. Years later, on the same day, the great city of Betar fell to the Romans and its dead were left unburied. Interestingly, both these misfortunes found rectification on the day of Tu B’Av: The people ceased to die in the wilderness and the dead of Betar were granted burial by the Roman government.

Hidden message in time

The placement of these “holidays” in close proximity is not a mere coincidence; it communicates a powerful message. The extent to which a person can look back, feel regret or embrace sorrow — at the appropriate time — will influence their experience of later joy. The intensity of this renewed happiness after a period of hardship goes beyond the contrasting experiences. Instead, it grants us a brighter vision and greater success than would have otherwise been possible.

The commentaries on Ecclesiastes describe this transformation as “a light which comes out of the darkness.” One common interpretation of this Hebrew phrase suggests that the previous absence enhances the current recognition of light. In a psychological framework, it’s like saying, “after going through difficult times, the good times become more meaningful.” However, delving deeper into the proverb reveals that the pain and bitterness eventually give birth to a higher experience, a new category of purer light.

So, as we move into the second half of this initially dismal month, the tide has turned. We find ourselves on an emotional and spiritual upswing. The prevailing message of this week is to seize the opportunity presented by the fresh mood — a new light that emerges from past darkness. 

Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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