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THE SECRET OF JOY : R. Ephraim Kenig

Rebbe Nachman taught, “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyful.” Not only does he say that it is a mitzvah, but a great mitzvah, as well. The question is, since when is it a mitzvah to be joyful all the time? There are certain times during the year when we are commanded to be joyful. For example, we are told to rejoice on the holiday of Sukkot, particularly during simchat beit ha-sho’eva, a ceremony dating back to when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem. Those who rejoice on Sukkot can actually begin to sense the joy that existed during the days of the Holy Temple.

Another time in the year when joy is mandatory is during the Hebrew month of Adar, of which our sages instructed us, Mi-shenichnas Adar marbin bi-simchah—“When Adar enters, we increase joy.”[1] The mere fact that there is a special mitzvah to increase joy during this month proves there is indeed a mitzvah to be joyful the rest of the year. Only during Adar, our role is to be even more joyful than usual. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the mourning period known as the “Three Weeks” which falls between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av [Tisha B’Av—a day of fasting and mourning over the destruction of both the first and second Temples and other calamities in Jewish history]. Other times of diminished joy include sitting shiva for seven days and the subsequent mourning period following the passing of a close family member. Nonetheless, this too is included within the framework of the mitzvah Rebbe Nachman refers to, “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyful.”

The reason these two extremes are considered part of the same mitzvah is because “always joyful” may be defined as a broad and functioning mind, i.e., a mind in its proper place. This is an essential concept in Judaism which is mentioned in the Torah itself. To clarify this idea, let’s look at when the mind works in a dysfunctional way. This occurs when one gets angry, which can happen anywhere. For instance, while waiting in line at the post office someone suddenly loses their temper. If you were to ask the individual at that very moment to explain what the problem is exactly, they would probably be unable to give a logical answer. This is because in the moment of anger, a person’s mind falls from the optimal state needed to function properly. Likewise with one who is distressed, for example, by a bank overdraft or bounced check, or even larger financial problems. He might be in such a state of mind that if someone were to call at that very moment, he would have no patience. If the caller is someone he has problems with anyway, he is likely to lose his temper when normally he would be able to control his emotions, possessing a more balanced outlook. A state of constant joy means guarding the mind at the minimum level required to act as a human being with free choice. When the mind is rendered dysfunctional, free choice disappears.

The definitive characteristic of a human being is having balanced choice.[2] When a person is removed from this context, he or she is effectively transformed into an animal, since free choice is what distinguishes a human being from an animal. Guarding the mind’s equilibrium is directly related to happiness and joy in general, which includes the joy discussed by our sages in the context of the annual cycle of holidays, as well as Rebbe Nachman’s concept of joy. Beyond conceptual understanding, attaining this type of joy is simply a matter of accustoming ourselves to the proper definition of what constitutes true joy, since in the heat of the moment there is no time to think rationally.

It is during good moments that we can repeatedly remind ourselves to be aware and on guard when those inevitable times come that can cause us to literally lose our minds. This awareness can help us catch ourselves in time to remain balanced when a test suddenly hits out of nowhere. How many times a day are we faced with such challenges? This is exactly why Rebbe Nachman says it is a great mitzvah to always be joyful. In other words, develop a constant daily awareness that we are human beings who require a certain level of proper mind function in order to think correctly. This is something that demands reflection, prayer, and effort but the payoff is great. May G-d have compassion upon us and grant us what it takes to be a human being—a true ben adam.

  1. Taanit 29a 2. See Likutey Moharan I, 21
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