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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Being happy doesn't mean clowning around

Sukkah 50

Nina had had enough of her husband’s antics.
“Everything’s a joke for Ray,” she complained to me, exasperated by his flippant attitude to life.
“But Rabbi,” responded Ray, “didn’t you tell us that we should be in a constant state of joy, and that if we are always happy, we will be able to survive whatever challenges life throws our way?”

The highlight of the calendar in Temple times was the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva – the Festival of the House of Drawing.  Literally, the drawing referred to the water that was drawn and offered as a libation upon the Altar. 

Tosfos offers a deeper insight into the meaning of the word ‘drawing’ from the Jerusalem Talmud:  When the musicians would play, the people would be filled with joy.  Joy is a prerequisite to the manifestation of the Shechina (Divine presence) and so the name of the festival refers to the “Holy Spirit [of prophecy]” that was drawn down as a result of the happy mood experienced by the revelers.

One famous reveler who received the Divine message at the festival was the prophet Jonah.   Amidst the great joy, G-d instructed Jonah to journey to Ninveh to chastise the people and convince them to mend their wicked ways.  Instead of embracing his Divine mission, Jonah ran away from the word of G-d.  He ended up on a ship that was about to capsize due to a fierce storm.  Jonah acknowledged his being the cause of the storm and was thrown overboard.  Swallowed alive by a large fish, Jonah rethought his actions and vowed to complete his Divine calling.

Why does the Talmud single out Jonah as the archetype of the prophet who received the word of G-d amidst the joy of the festival?  Surely, if the festival celebrated the drawing down of the Holy Spirit, there would have been many joyous people who began their prophetic careers there!

Previously (Sukkah 48), we discussed the secret to achieving happiness in life.  While many people believe that religion is a means to achieving happiness, we learned that au contraire, happiness is a means to achieving spirituality.  As Tosfos teaches here, once the people were in a state of joy, they were able to receive the Holy Spirit.  In addition, we learned from the verse “They shall exit with joy” that if we strive to maintain a mood of joy, then we will be able to withstand all the vicissitudes and challenges life throws our way.   In other words, you don’t need to go looking for happiness.  Happiness is already inside you.  But you must strive to reveal it if you desire to soar in life.

And yet how can you be constantly happy?  Bad things happen in life, tragedy strikes innocent people.  There is much suffering in the world – when you just laugh it off, isn’t that cold and callous?  What’s more, if everything’s just a joke, why bother fixing anything?  If I want to maintain my happiness, the easiest way is to avoid conflict altogether! 

But conflict is real, suffering is real, tragedy is real.  And we can’t just laugh it off.

That was Jonah’s problem.  Jonah was such a joyful guy that he wasn’t looking to add problems to his life.  He was happy to have as little conflict in his life as possible, so that he could just be in a wonderful mood all the time.  And so when G-d asked him to save Ninveh, he ran in the opposite direction. 

“Constant simcha (joy) is a great mitzvah,” does not mean that you avoid tough decisions or situations of conflict.   The challenges of life are designed to make our souls stronger.  True simcha is the embrace of the Holy Spirit.  When we face difficult issues and ordeals in life with the inner joy in knowing that G-d has a plan, then we can step up and deal with the challenge, giving the matter the seriousness it demands. 


Simcha does not mean levity.  It does not mean callousness.  Simcha is the joy we experience as we are manifested with the Shechina.  It is a mature joy, one that comes of the strength and fortitude displayed when one is able to face up to life’s challenges, without losing faith and without shying away when life calls for tough decisions.