Increasing Joy

“MiShenichnas Adar Marbim B’Simchah – when the Jewish month of Adar enters, joy increases.” When our sages expressed this is the Mishneh, they did not specify if this statement is descriptive or proscriptive. If it is descriptive, either we see it as accurate or not. But if it is proscriptive, it calls out to us to take steps to increase the joy we feel in life. Here is a suggestion for how to do this, which will sound crazy, but is nonetheless true and available to each of us.

Recently I attended a wedding. I usually cry at weddings, but at this wedding I was particularly overwhelmed with tears of joy. And I realized the reason for this unusually strong sense of joy.

The magnificent, detailed, multi-layered account of the Jewish People building a Mishkan, a sanctuary in which to come close to God, begins with God commanding Moshe: “Speak to the Children of Israel and take for Me offerings, from every Ish (man) whose heart is moved to give, you shall take his offering.”

The use of the word “Ish,” usually translated as “man” is problematic for two reasons; at the beginning of the verse the command is directed to the entire Jewish People, men and woman – so why would the actual request be to take only from men? And second, we know from the text of the Torah, and from the comments of our rabbis, that in fact women did bring gifts for the construction of the Mishkan, and our sages tell us that the quality of the women’s gifts exceeded that of the men. So why is the request addressed only to men?

There is a comment in the Zohar, the basic text of Kabballah, Jewish mysticism, which understands the word “Ish” not to mean a man as distinct from a woman, but to mean “a triumphant soul.” Ish is one, man or woman, who has struggled, and prevailed. (I am indebted to Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger’s essay, “Give Like a Man” at, though my approach here is somewhat different.) Moshe is being told that the preferred donor is one who at first resists, who does not want to part with their things, who does not initially see the benefit or even the ability to live in God’s proximity, and only after struggling with the request is able to see the value in giving to create a meeting place with God.

This comment of the Zohar becomes a curriculum, requiring us to review and re-analyse every instance of this word “Ish” to appreciate this deeper meaning.

But more immediately, it shows us something profound in what God is looking for in us. I often find people are ashamed of their doubts, questions, and struggles. They seek to hide them, especially from themselves. But when I meet someone, I am much more impressed with the honesty of struggle and uncertainty. Certainty – in others and in myself – frightens me. The Zohar is teaching us that God views us similarly, reserving His highest regard not for those of us who live lives of certainty, but rather for those of us blessed with struggle and doubt and the courage to wrestle them. Only then do we become “Ish.”

This applies in every area of life. It is expressed in a wonderful and wise novel, “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. The boy, Marion, has a traumatic childhood in Ethiopia, raised by a woman he calls Matron. He goes on to become a respected doctor and enjoy a life unimaginable from the vantage of his childhood. As a young man he asks Matron what he should do with his life. She tells him, “What is the hardest thing you can possibly do?” Marian squirmed, “Why do I have to do what is hardest?” “Because, Marion, you are an instrument of God. Don’t leave the instrument sitting in its case, my son. Play! Leave no part of your instrument unexplored. Why settle for ‘Three Blind Mice’ when you can play ‘Gloria’?”

The beautiful couple whose wedding so affected me had struggled mightily to reach each other under the Chuppah. And I, in my behind-the-scenes way, had also struggled, with anguish and effort and frustration, to provide the support to help make this moment a reality.

There are many kinds of joy in life. But the joy that comes after struggle and doubt is higher and sweeter than any other. If you want to be “Marbim B’Simchah” to qualitatively enhance the joy you experience, attempt a goal that seems the hardest, the most nearly unattainable. Undoubtedly, you will fail more frequently. But when you succeed, the joy will be incomparable. The ironic key to the highest joy is to be an “Ish” a person ready to struggle.

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Whitman is the spiritual leader of the ADATH (Adath Israel Poale Zedek Anshei Ozeroff Synagogue) in Hampstead, Quebec since August, 2001. He is also a Sessional Lecturer at McGill University Faculty of Law, and creator if its Talmudic Law Moot Court Competition. Rabbi Whitman serves on the boards of Auberge Shalom…pour femmes, Cote St. Luc / Hampstead / Snowdon Eruv, Westmount Eruv, Rabbinical Council Conversion Program, and (former Executive Board Member) Rabbinical Council of America. He is past president of the Rabbinical Council of Montreal and past president of the Greater Montreal Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Whitman served for fourteen years as the spiritual leader of Young Israel of New Haven, Connecticut, USA. During that time, he worked at Yale University Hillel and taught at Yale University Law School.