A Different Perspective on Simcha – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
In the world of contemporary Jewry, if one was to pose the question “What do you know about the Jewish notion of simcha?” the answer would likely quote Rebbe Nachman’s famous saying “Mitzva gedola liheyot besimcha tamid”, loosely translated as “it is a great mitzvah to be happy, always”. This idea, though very popular amongst today’s youth (and many adults too), is not the only way of viewing “simcha”. In fact it is not at all clear that there is a mitzvah to be “besimcha tamid”. In the ensuing lines we will try to provide a few insights into this subject.
The concept of “simcha”, often translated as happiness, is a subject much discussed in Aggadic and Halachic literature. Interestingly it appears twice in this week’s parsha and once in last week’s parsha and it is these uses of the word simcha which will serve as the references for our discussion.
The Torah proscribes a newly married man from leaving his wife to go the army or for any other reason during the first year of marriage. Rather, states the Torah, he should be devoted to his home for one year “vesimach et ishto asher lakach”. (Devarim 24:5). This phrase can be translated literally to mean “he should give happiness to the woman he has married”. However, it is clear from the context that the word “vesimach” employed here pertains to a particular form of happiness. It refers to the fact that the husband should not leave his wife alone. Simcha here refers to the joy of human company; the emotional peace one achieves from spending time with someone dear to them.
At the beginning of this week’s parsha we learn of the mitzvah of bikkurim, the requirement for the farmer to bring his first fruits to the Bet Hamikdash. As he presents his basket of fruit to the Kohen, the farmer then reads a brief history of Am Yisrael describing the enslavement in Egypt, the ensuing Exodus and entrance into Eretz Yisrael. Through these words the bearer of the first fruits acknowledges that his agricultural success stems from The Almighty. At the end of this section we find the following verse:
“And you shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem your God has bestowed upon you and your household, you and the Levite and the stranger in your midst” (Devarim 26:11)
The opening phrase of this passuk is “vesamachta bechol hatov”; the word simcha being used here to convey the joy the farmer should feel in appreciation of the bountiful crop his fields have produced. Simcha here involves, on the one hand, enjoying material abundance whilst attributing such success to Hashem. On the other hand the Torah stipulates that this rejoicing should be done in the company of those who cannot themselves bring bikkurim to the Mikdash. The Levite and the stranger (ger), on account of their not owning their own land in Eretz Yisrael, are unable to bring their own first fruits to the Temple. We are told to include them in the celebrations thereby allowing them too to feel the sense of appreciation, joy and gratitude to Hashem.
We can therefore summarize simcha in this instance to involve both gratitude to Hashem and the need to share one’s sense of happiness with others. This latter notion strikes a similar chord with the words of the Rambam at the end of Hilchot Megillah. Commenting on whether one should invest more funds and effort in Mishloach Manot or Matanot La’evyonim, Rambam writes that it is better to give more Matanot La’evyonim rather than spending money on one’s Seudat Purim or Mishloach Manot because there is no greater simcha than to bring happiness to the unfortunate. He goes on to quote a passuk which proves that one who brings joy to those less fortunate than he is compared to the Shechina, the presence of God.
The third use of the word simcha appears in the context of the “tochacha”, the curses that the Torah says will befall Am Yisrael should we fail to follow the commandments of God; “(these curses will occur) because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything” (Devarim 28:47). The key phrase for our discussion is “besimcha uvetuv leyvov, merov kol”.
The simple understanding of this verse is that we failed to serve God with the appropriate level of “simcha”. This would imply that not being joyful in our performance of mitzvoth would result in severe punishments as described in this chapter. It is very difficult to suggest that that is indeed the case. Are we to conclude that if Am Yisrael kept all the Torah but did not exhibit the correct sentiment of joy while doing so they would be doomed to suffer terrible hardships? This would seem particularly harsh.
We therefore propose that either this verse should be read differently or that the notion of simcha, as we may commonly have understood it, be redefined. Abarbanel punctuates and explains the passuk as follows: “because you did not serve Hashem your God in the land as you were happy and contented due to your abundance of everything.” Abarbanel sees the simcha as being a negative influence created by the material wealth that man has amassed. Due to this, too much emphasis is place on worldly happiness and therefore the Torah and God’s commandments are ignored. According to this explanation, simcha here is something to be avoided. We suggest that this is only the case when simcha stems from a negative outlook as described here. The corresponding positive form of simcha in contradistinction to that described by the Abarabanel would be the simcha which emerges from the famous mishna in Pirkei Avot: “Eyzehu ashir, hasameach bechelko – who is rich, one who is happy with his lot”. (Avot 4:1) This statement of our sages reminds us that happiness does not necessarily stem from the extent of possessions we have but rather from how we view that which we do own. It is a matter of perspective. Simcha here refers to a certain peace of mind, an emotional sense of satisfaction.
This leads us to an alternate understanding of simcha. Commenting on the mitzvah of tzedakah, the requirement to give charity, Sefer Hachinuch writes that it should be performed “besimcha uvetuv leyvov” (a direct quote from the verse quoted above). The rationale behind this requirement is twofold. First of all it is to preserve the dignity and self respect of the poor person who receives the tzedakah. As it is, the receiver finds it difficult and embarrassing to request assistance from others. It is incumbent upon the person giving the charity to do so happily in order that the recipient is not to experience any greater emotional pain than already felt. Secondly, when a person gives of his own money to someone else out of a sense of duty to perform the mitzvah he should do so with the understanding that it is a privilege to be able to help others. It is, on the one hand, a duty but it should also invoke a sense of happiness that you are giving and thereby making someone else happy. We saw this notion earlier in the words of Rambam about Matanot La’evyonim.
We suggest that this idea can also lead to a different understanding of the simcha connected with performing other mitzvoth too. The statement of Rebbe Nachman quoted at the outset is generally understood to refer to singing, dancing and outward demonstrations of happiness. However, the simcha of fulfilling Hashem’s command may stem from a clearer understanding of our role in the world. As we obey God’s command we should experience an inner feeling of satisfaction; a sense of clarity as to our purpose in the world. This is not simcha as it is often construed to be but a much more inward expression of joy. The passuk in the “tochacha” which castigates Am Yisrael for not performing God’s word “besimcha uvetuv leyvov” could be referring to an absence of such a sense of purpose. If we fail to appreciate why we are performing mitzvoth then maybe we are not worthy of reward but rather of punishment. (Though I have tried to explain the harshness of the Torah’s words here, I still prefer the above quoted interpretation of the Abarbanel to this verse. The definition of simcha is unaffected by how we interpret this specific passuk.)
In connection to this last definition of simcha, it is worth noting the following words of Rav Soleveitchik (Out of the Whirlwind P169):
“Judaism resents moodiness even in the field of religion. We have never attributed much significance to the impulsive religious emotion, to the impetuous onrush of piety, the sudden conversion, the headlong emotional leap from the mundane and profane into the sacred and heavenly; we are reluctant to accept all kinds of precipitate moods as genuine expressions of God-intoxications of the soul. Judaism is interested in a religious experience which mirrors the genuine personality, the most profound movements of the soul, an experience which is the result of true involvement in the transcendental gesture, of slow, painstaking self-reckoning and self-actualization, of deep intuition of eternal values and comprehension of human destiny and paradox, of miserable sleepless nights of dreary doubt and skepticism and of glorious days of inspiration, of being torn by opposing forces and winning freedom.”
It would appear that Rav Soleveitchik is referring to a spiritual yearning which takes much time and effort. If his words can be applied to the “simcha” mentioned in the context of the “tochacha”, then I believe this confirms what we have suggested. Simcha is not an outburst of sudden excitement of the soul, but rather, in reference to keeping mitzvoth, it involves deep and prolonged introspection, thought and an eventual realization of our purpose in life.
In summary, we have seen different aspects of simcha as they emerge from the Torah — the simcha of not being alone, of spending time in the company of those we love; the simcha of having what we need but showing gratitude to Hashem for such; the simcha of giving, of sharing what belongs to us with others. And finally, the simcha achieved from the performance of the words of The Almighty and the awareness created within us through this.
May we all merit these different forms of simcha and learn to serve Hashem בשמחה ובטוב לבב.
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