Pure joy comes when you give from the heart

The theme of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the eight-day festival we just concluded, is “simcha,” happiness and joy. To be sure, there is an experience of joy within every Jewish holiday. The difference, however, is that other emotions are usually mixed into the picture, such as the recent days of awe and the sense of freedom provoked during Passover, whereas Sukkot is permeated with pure joy. In our prayers, we refer to it as “the time of our rejoicing.”
Every culture has its own way of celebrating. In some settings, the inner mood of happiness is softer, more contained, even rehearsed. Other times, the expression of joy is set free, more spontaneous and explosive. During Sukkot, and specifically the dancing of Simchat Torah, our celebration with the Torah spills into the streets in front of synagogues as we pull down buckets of blessings and carry the images and memories into the year.
There is an aphorism about the effect of happiness — “simcha breaks through barriers.” The surface interpretation of this phrase is that when this uplifting feeling flows through you, it helps overcome personal inhibitions or perceived limitations. A person who feels genuinely happy can slip off the chains of logic and act in a way that defies the normal mode.
It also removes external obstacles, even heavenly decrees. Commenting on the verse “the Lord is your shadow” (Psalm 121:5), the Baal Shem Tov interprets the word “shadow” (usually taken to mean protection) to indicate that just as a person’s shadow corresponds to his movements, so too G-d relates to us according to our behavior and our attitudes.
Simply put, there is an ongoing relationship whereby our actions (or emotions) cause a mirroring effect above. When a person is happy down here, it creates a corresponding joy within the heavens. And just like the internal experience transcends the usual limitation/restrictions, so too above, at the time of happiness, all barriers and restrictions/limits are nullified/removed.
On a deeper psychological level, “simcha breaking barriers” means that most barriers we perceive are often illusions. And through feeling happiness, the illusion that these barriers exist falls away.
The boundless quality of joy does not stem from any reasoning, but rather a deeper force inside us, an unexpected fortune or sense of gratitude beyond what the heart can contain.
Any fulfilment based on condition or reason — success, accomplishment or desire — is limited. But when based on commitment, motivation about doing what’s right, connecting to above, mitzvah — then it taps into unlimited energy, which in turn affects that which rises above limitations, which is true joy.
Genuine joy stems from commitment, the motivation to move beyond one’s comfort and connect to a higher purpose.
In the Jewish cycle, the themes behind the full month of holidays are not incidental; they are specifically the commitment we established on Rosh Hashanah, reaching to the source of all life, then the introspection and cleansing on Yom Kippur, that allows for the true experience and expression of happiness that plays out during Sukkot.
As it applies to the rest of the year, happiness must penetrate into the three spiritual pathways — “Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness.” And here too, we must seek to break limits.
When it comes to balancing the obligation to give — the desire to make a difference in somebody else’s life — and the counter voice inside calling to look after oneself, a common approach is “first take care of yourself, then you’ll be in a better position to give to others.” A similar view sparks the overused counsel of “you can’t really love others if you don’t first love yourself.”
The problem with the above mentality is that while you’re striving to make progress in the first stage, the second stage usually suffers — once you start focusing on improving or loving yourself, there is no end to the “self’s” demands. It often results in a bourgeois outlook, a measured giving aimed at feeling good. But true wisdom and spiritual growth comes only through sacrifice.
On the other hand, it is difficult to give happily when you are busy, feeling weak or overwhelmed.
One approach to resolving this tension begins with changing our perception of the conflict and division between these two. The key comes through internalizing how, through connecting with someone else, a person refines himself in a way that could never be achieved while alone and focused inward.
In other words, helping another is an essential part of fixing oneself and should never be completely pushed aside or delayed. It’s only a question of how many calculations are made. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tzedakah shares a root with (tzedek) “just” — a moral requirement, not simply an altruistically inspired act.
More practically, when a person designates a fixed time in the schedule for giving to others, knowing that during this part of the day they must go against the grain and give more, this sacrifice of personal advancement for the sake of uplifting another in turn benefits the giver immeasurably. This sacrifice also includes “spiritual tzedakah” — being charitable with one’s time, breaking away from one’s busy schedule to be with, teach, share wisdom or advise another.
The fifth Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty, known as “the Tzemach Tzedek,” once guaranteed that the merit of giving tzedakah will lift the person to the extent that the mind and the heart are, in the process, refined thousandfold. The result is that a project or business deal, for example, which would have taken the person 1,000 hours to complete, due to challenges, hindrances or insight, will end up being accomplished in only an hour because the internal faculties of the person, and the outside world, have been enhanced.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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