Disney-Pixar and Teshuvah: The Dynamics of Joy and Sadness

Recently we took our youngest to see the new Disney Pixar film ‘Inside Out’ and it is pure genius. It tells the seemingly ordinary tale of an eleven year old girl named Riley who has a comfortable and cosy life in Minnesota that is disrupted when her father moves the family to San Francisco. The move is traumatic. Riley feels uprooted and unable to settle into her new neighborhood and school. None of this is earth shattering stuff but that is only the background to the real story which takes place in her mind.

The film revolves around Riley’s interior life fleshed out by five quirky cartoon figures each representing a core human emotion; Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust. It is the interplay between these interior characters that make the film so riveting.

The axis upon which the plot revolves is the relationship between Joy and Sadness. Joy is determined that Riley be happy all the time at all costs. She goes to extraordinary ends to ensure that Sadness is kept away from Riley’s consciousness and as a result Riley is unable to give vent to her unhappy situation. However at a pivotal moment in the plot (when Riley runs away from home) it is Sadness that saves the day by invoking deep nostalgia and it is Sadness that affords Riley the deep catharsis she needs to move on.


The message is that incessant,  unadulterated joy is neither normal nor healthy. Moments of sadness are as essential to our psychological health as are moments of joy. One of the most difficult lessons I had to learn as a new rabbi was to allow grieving individuals to grieve. The instinct to make things better and distract them from their deep sadness was overwhelming. In time I learned that such distractions were counterproductive and that sadness, unpleasant an emotion though it may be, is the psyche’s way of healing itself and must be allowed to run its course.

I don’t know if the film’s writers intended it to be a critique on the Western world’s obsession with the pursuit of happiness and our increasing reliance on pills as short cut to attaining it. It is difficult not to make the connection. If viewers leave the cinema with a more balanced view of sadness, it can only be a good thing.

But is all sadness alike?

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745 -1812) an early Hasidic master and founder of HaBaD Hasidism makes an important distinction between two types of sadness, which he discusses in chapter thirty one of his famous work, Tanya.

One type of sadness is atzvut which can loosely be translated as depression. In this state, the individual’s heart is ‘closed up like a stone.’ He describes it as a passive state that operates like a vortex sucking the individual into deeper levels of mental and emotional paralysis. No good comes from such a state of mind and Rabbi Shneur Zalman urges his readers to try and avoid it at all costs.

However there is another type of sadness which he calls merirut, translated as bitterness. Unlike atzvut, it is dynamic; instead of emotional paralysis, it is experienced as deep and acute pain. It is this latter type of sadness that Rabbi Shneur Zalman believes can be highly productive in short, powerful doses because it jolts the individual into constructive action.

Dancing Chassidim II
Chassidim Dancing (Y.Chaskelson), Ner Art Gallery

The context of this discussion is sin and guilt. Atzvut tends to invade one’s emotional state unbidden. It just settles in and leaves the person feeling blue, low and unworthy over sins committed. It is very difficult to climb out of this state and make the necessary positive changes to one’s life and so one only becomes more downcast and dejected. Merirut however is invoked by the individual and it is the portal through which Teshuvah is accessed. Rather than wallowing in paralyzing self pity the individual actively summons up thoughts of sharp regret which are then leveraged to enact positive change. It is through experiencing this cathartic sadness that one is able to honestly identify where they are and where they would like to be. Once this state of clarity is achieved one does not look back. One looks only ahead with hope and renewed joy.

 A later Hasidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787 1859) famous for his paradoxical aphorisms, described this succinctly;

‘There is nothing as whole as a broken heart.’

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and engage in the kind of interior reflection that leads to Teshuvah we must not confuse atzvut with merirut. The former is an emotional and spiritual dead end. But the latter is the gateway to a renewed and reconstructed self. Honest self reflection can be extremely painful but the personal transformation it achieves brings genuine joy which is why Yom Kippur is followed by the most joyous festival of all: Sukkot — zman simchatienu.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Naftali Brawer is the Neubauer Executive Director at Tufts Hillel, and Jewish Chaplain at Tufts University.