The great hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, put joy and happiness at the center of his focus on emuna/faith in Hashem. His teachings have been an incredible blessing in my life. I have studied his ideas since I am became observant in college at Emory University. Rebbe Nachman’s devotion to simplicity, truthfulness, and accepting all hardships as a blessing from Hashem have always inspired me.
Recently, I have been meditating on the word ‘simcha’. What does it really mean in English? What does the Torah mean by ‘simcha’ in the service of Hashem?
When it is translated as ‘happy’ it has many obvious benefits. People work hard to pull themselves out of a rut, or depression, or negative attitude. They enliven the mitzvot with joy and energy.
However, on the other hand, when mixed with intense mysticism, I observe that ‘happiness’ pulls people out of reality, enhancing escapism, and allowing the individual to hide from their challenges and problems. I see the trends of growing isolation from the secular world with the emphasis on ‘faith’ and focus on being ‘happy’
I, too, place a lot of value on emunah and faith, but it pains me to see many segments of the Orthodox community pulling away from the general society into a closed off tribe. I wonder if this was the vision of Rebbe Nachman?
If I could travel in time, I would ask the Rebbe, – “Rebbe, what do you mean by ‘b’simcha tamid” trans – ‘being happy always”?
Could we translate it as ‘courageous’? For me, when I use this english word for simcha, it helps me to envision a Judaism that is fearless in the midst of all ideas, of individuals who strengthen themselves in the reality of an existence that is far from perfect or even designed for humans, much less their happiness. It allows me to see the halacha as a system of obligation to Hashem, the Jewish people, and the entire human family.
Most importantly, being ‘courageous always’ forces me to confront things in myself that I don’t like. My failures, my shortcomings, and the distance between my idealization of who I am, and who is really there.
I find for myself, that it takes courage to admit that believing in G-d doesn’t make life perfect, easy, understandable, filled with meaning, etc. (as I thought it would back in college) Life is routinely challenging, confusing, absurd, painful, filled with loss, as much as with love, success, creation, etc.
I think being ‘happy’ adds pressure to our religious lives that we must always be in a positive mindset and project the idea that Torah life makes life good. Its a heavy weight, that paradoxically, can add to sadness or frustration.
I think ‘courage’ gives us the strength to embrace the incredible complexity of life and our failings without flinching and still, with all of the pain and joy, to acknowledge the Creator and behave appropriately, in a dignified, and ultimately, sanctified manner.
I believe, at this time in my life, that happiness is truly a by product of knowing that within imperfect creation, you know in your heart, that you lived your life with courage at all times. You did the right thing at the right time. You gave your time when you would have rather kept it. You never sat still in comfort, while humanity cried out. You didn’t save the world, but you did what you could in your daily life and you have faith it made a difference.
Its the courage to leave a comfort zone of self, ideas, or even worldview, to question everything, to accept this fragile, physical world, and make room for the ‘other’ and work for the a brighter future.
A day when Hashem will be acknowledged as One, and the humanity will call on Hashem’s name as one human family. Serving Hashem with courage is pushing on, even when failure seems imminent, but your values says you can’t give up.