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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

UNMASKING HAMAN

It is easy to villainize others. Global wars are waged because of this. On a more intimate level, a simple personal affront can besiege the victim’s heart for years with quiet burning anger. Both levels, collective and individual, are part of a single whole, since everything has an outer and inner reality—a physical and spiritual aspect. Every created entity in the world has a root from which it draws vitality. Anything formed after the root, draws its sustenance from it. Consider a plant: pluck its flower and it is cut off from its source, quickly withering away. Uproot the plant entirely and it dies. The same is true in the spiritual realm, since anything material has a spiritual source. This is one reason why the wisdom found in the Kabbalah is significant, since it identifies the spiritual root of everything in creation.

In mystical writings, Amalek is described as the fundamental root of impurity and the antithesis of faith. When Amalek is condemned in such harsh terms, modern-day sensibilities cringe. On Purim, there is a special commandment to remember who he is—even more importantly, what he is beyond a mere characterization. Yet, in order to remember something, it must be clearly identified.

Haman, the arch-villain of the Jews in the Purim saga, is rooted in the force called “Amalek” (of whom he was an actual descendant). This is why we speak of “Haman-Amalek” in the same breath, since it is the same power. There is no other force in creation that is so unrelenting in its evil. At the highest level, it is considered the antithesis of the Jewish people because it is the spiritual force that actively seeks to obstruct Divine light and blessing to the world. When this happens, it brings a sense of estrangement from G-d, Who is the source of life.

The root of Amalek’s power is deeper than even the first human being, since it precedes creation entirely. The genesis of Amalek originated in the vacuum of the “Vacated Space” that came into being before the world was formed. For this reason, Amalek is called “first”. “Amalek was first among the nations” (Numbers 24:20). The void of the Vacated Space is the source of all doubt and negative characteristics that drive evil in the world. The primordial nature of the Amalek energy is what imbues it with the extraordinary ability to climb so high and “grasp the throne”, so to speak.

The first mention of Amalek in the Torah occurs in Genesis 14:7, when a battle takes place that causes mass destruction by obliterating a large civilian population. This occurred in a location called the “Plains of the Amalekites” despite the fact that Amalek himself would not be born for over a century later. The Midrash explains that death and destruction on such a large scale could only take place on a site connected to Amalek.[1]

On a physical level, the force of Amalek entered the world through Esau, Yaakov’s twin brother, who was blessed with the power of the sword: “By your sword you shall live” (Genesis 27:40). Eliphaz, the oldest son of Esau, had a concubine named Timna who gave birth to Amalek. Haman was a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites in the time of King Saul. During the days of Mordechai and Esther, Haman distinguished himself through his intricate plan to exterminate the Jews in the kingdom of Achashverosh.

Cycling through generations, the spiritual force of Haman-Amalek operates anywhere ambitions of large-scale genocide and annihilation rear their head. Although modern-day examples are not difficult to find, what is less known are the inner characteristics of Haman-Amalek. Why is this important? Because despite being rooted elsewhere, a person can be nursing vitality from an entirely different place without even knowing it. We are affected by Amalek’s influence any time we entertain negative thoughts or are party to evil actions, even in the smallest way.

Herein lies the work of every individual to begin to identify these characteristics as alien to goodness in order to disengage and separate from them. Since their influence on the mind and heart can be extremely subtle, the first step is to become more aware of their existence and identify them for what they are.

  • There is no greater trademark of Haman-Amalek than anger, self-importance, and arrogance—different expressions of a single attribute. An arrogant person angers easily, particularly from personal affronts and insults to their honor.
  • Feelings of jealousy and hatred.
  • Status-seeking and being obsessed with “only the best.”
  • Extreme materialism expressed as love of money and material objects, particularly the quality of hoarding.
  • Haman-Amalek seeks to hide and obscure the good point.[2] Feelings of worthlessness are the biggest symptom of this effort. Stubbornly seeking the positive in yourself and others in difficult situations is the only antidote. This also includes finding the good point in any given moment, even in the lowest of places. On a higher plane, it is manifested as forgetting there is purpose to life.
  • Just as Amalek attacked the weary and enfeebled Jews on their journey through the wilderness in the time of Moses, in every generation the same force repeatedly targets and pursues those who are “lost” and on the fringes, injecting them with a sense of hopelessness and despair.
  • It includes the following thoughts: “Everything is the ‘same old story,’” “Prayer is pointless,” and most of all, “There is no hope.”
  • Haman-Amalek is the source of all subtle thoughts of doubt and denial of G-d, including lack of faith in oneself. The name “Amalek” bears the same gematria (numerical value) as the Hebrew word for doubt, safek.

Anytime these things are felt, one is subject to the influence of Haman-Amalek. The main spiritual work in life is to realign oneself and draw vitality from the source of light, life, and goodness. This is not only possible but mandatory, and called tikkun olam.

The tenacity of “Haman-Amalek” comes from the fact that its influence is woven into the fabric of creation itself, because it predated the world—well before the advent of humanity. Although the work of uprooting this force entirely is ultimately G-d’s war, everyone must do their part by eradicating the “Amalek” within. When it is finally nullified in the world, all barriers to perceiving the Divine will automatically fall away. What was previously concealed will then be revealed for every eye to see, which is the essence of the messianic tikkun.

1. Breishit Rabbah 42:7

2. Otzar HaYirah, Purim 38

What You Never Knew About Esther

Esther is a “precious stone.” She descended into the depths on a secret mission. Her very name means “hidden.” Only when her mission was accomplished did she and Mordechai record the events on a scroll called Megillat Esther. Written with ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) the contents of this scroll are read every Purim around the world, testifying to the hidden and miraculous presence of G-d in the darkest of moments. A prototype of hidden redemption, the Purim story is especially relevant to our generation.

Sometimes there are dilemmas so enormous that the mind cannot fathom a way out. In this case, there is only one solution to circumvent everything: Go to the microcosmic source that holds the root of everything. The Foundation Stone1 in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem had this quality, lying beneath the Holy of Holies—a place radiating unparalleled spiritual symmetry and beauty of irresistible attraction. This innermost point was hidden inside Esther, as well as other great tzaddikim and tzidkaniyot throughout history. Redemption during periods of great peril is sometimes brought about through a lone individual. Other times it involves the interaction between a pair of redeemers, as in the case of Mordechai and Esther.

The potency of Esther’s power lay in its hiddenness; it flowed from the all-inclusive good point she possessed. It wasn’t just any good point, it was the microcosmic hub found within every woman who played a redemptive role in Jewish history: for instance, the three matriarchs Sara, Rivka and Rachel, as well as Ruth, Devorah, Yael, Rabbi Meir’s wife Bruria, Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel, and many others who remain hidden. Evil individuals seeking to harm or destroy the Jewish people often met their downfall through women who put their body and soul on the line for the sake of the Jewish people. Esther cried out in profound distress, Hatzila Mi-cherev Nafshi—“Save my soul from the sword!”2 The first letters of this verse spell “Haman.”

Since Esther’s innermost point included the root of every soul, she is said to have encompassed Klal Yisrael. She was also the living spiritual paradigm of ishah yirat Hashem—the “G-d fearing woman” (Proverbs 31:30) spoken about extensively in our holy writings. Her humility formed the basis for every salvation, and allowed her to resist the empty lure of fame and recognition—something that would have undermined her success entirely.

A TIMELESS VS TIME-BOUND REALITY

There is another deeper aspect to Esther’s powerful influence that involves time itself.3 All suffering is the result of existing in a realm bound by time. Exile in particular personifies the pain and anguish of life under the constraints of time. We are unable to see the whole picture, something reserved only for the higher timeless consciousness of the World to Come.4

But at extraordinary moments in history the two realms intersect, bringing redemption. The reality that exists above time is miraculous because it suffers no lack or damage of any kind. Everything is whole and complete, and as such, holds the key to all healing and perfection. The essence of the Purim miracle (as well as that of Chanukah) came from this timeless realm and penetrates deeply into our world every year during Chanukah and Purim. It is the same place that Mashiach pulls down his strength to repair a very troubled and diseased earth. Because Esther possessed this microcosmic good point in her generation, by straddling both realms, she was the conduit of salvation for the entire Jewish people during Purim.

When she descended into the depths of evil, the Other Side rejoiced, figuring it had won the biggest prize by capturing the ishah yirat Hashem, the quintessential G-d-fearing woman herself. She now would be lost along with everything else she held within her. Vi-ka’asher avaditi avaditi, “And if I perish, I perish,” she wept (Esther 4:17). Taken into the inner chambers of Achashverosh, she was submerged in the constraints of time—the ultimate expression of exile. However, the profound humility and righteousness of Esther prevented the wicked Achashverosh from accessing her inner essence.5 She nullified herself entirely and remained unaffected by any contact with him. Her purity protected her during her descent, enabling her to elevate and restore the sparks of holiness that fell into the lowest time-bound realm of evil.

Esther’s “capture” and exile to the lowest time-bound realm of Haman and Achashverosh was intended to suppress all hope for redemption rooted above time. This supra-temporal level is where the Jewish people draw their strength. Therefore, since the dimension of time had engulfed Esther, to prevail over her meant prevailing over Israel—since they were all rooted in her soul. Yet she overcame everything through her heroic efforts on behalf of the Jews. In so doing, she prevailed over the time-bound astrological calculations of Haman to annihilate the entire people on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar (usually the day preceding Purim, observed as the “Fast of Esther” today). Instead, the tables were completely turned on Haman and his supporters when the day earmarked for the destruction of the Jews brought devastation to Israel’s enemies. The redemptive light of the timeless realm converted everything into good—all in the merit of Mordechai and Esther, the redemptive duo of Purim.

“For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy, and honor—so may it be for us.”8

1. Called Even HaShetiyah.

2. Psalms 22:21. This entire chapter in the Book of Psalms is attributed to Esther.

3. Toras Noson on Megilat Esther.

4. Berakhot 34b, et al.

5. R’ Chaim Vital, Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Klipat Nogah 4-5; Ma’amar HaNefesh II:3.

6. From the prefatory verses of the Havdalah ceremony recited at the conclusion of Shabbat, based on Esther 8:16.