During Covid-19, it is easy to get down about all the people getting sick (many dying) and for the rest of us the intense feelings of isolation. However, during this time (and particularly this week of Thanksgiving), I am learning the importance of staying positive and appreciating all G-d’s blessings that we do have.
More broadly, I am coming to understand that inside a person, G-d exists amidst love, kindness and cheerfulness: these are elements that nourish the flame of our soul and wherein G-d happily coexists with us. It makes a lot of sense that when we are angry, jealous, or sad, the holy Shechinah (presence of G-d) cannot fully reside inside us. Because G-d Himself is gracious, kind, and loving and created us from this, so His spirit within us (our soul) flourishes amidst these feelings, but diminishes within us like a flame without oxygen when we distance ourselves emotionally and spiritually.
Many years ago, my wife went to visit the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and he told her that she should go:
B’sever panim yafot (a pleasant countenance or with cheerfulness)
And similarly, in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 1:15, Shamai says that we should:
Greet every person with a pleasant expression.
In essence, it is a desired attribute for us to feel positive, loving, compassionate, and joyful inside as well as in expressing it outside. This was a transformational lesson for my wife at the time, but also I believe is one for all of us, as well!
But yet, how can we make ourselves feel a certain way? Isn’t it perhaps forced and disingenuous? Moreover, if we feel bad about something, maybe it’s good to “let it out” and “get it off our chests” rather than hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Certainly, I don’t believe that G-d expects us hide our feelings or be phony about it. But at the same time, I think like with all the commandments, that G-d is looking for us to gain self-control and a certain mastery over ourselves: from what we think to the way we feel, and especially, to the way we act and express ourselves.
Already in the 18th century, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic movement saw that the only way out of the downward spiraling condition of the Jewish people after the millennia or Jewish exile, persecution and pogroms, and then the utter disappointment of the false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, was to reconnect to Hashem through prayer, study, and joy! Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, taught:
Always remember, joy is not incidental to the spiritual quest; it is vital.
Like with everything in life, we must work hard in order to achieve our desired goals. Already, G-d told Adam, after he ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 3:17):
In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.
Similarly, with everything we do, we must continuously work at it and for it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being mad or sad when life is tough and throws us all sorts of curve balls. But it is our job to essentially work hard and rise above the negative feelings and to try to replace them with positive feelings and constructive thinking and actions!
Just like in the time of the holy Temple, G-d resided in the inner sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, so too in each of us, G-d resides in our inner selves, when holiness resides in our hearts. The more light, love, and joy that we can generate and emanate from ourselves, the more G-d can reside His holy Shechinah within our bodily temples in this world, and ultimately, let us into the proximity of His holy presence in the afterlife.
Just like one candlelight extinguishes the darkness around it, so also the light that we nurture within ourselves can extinguish the darkness that we occasionally feel inside. I know for myself personally, that my own creativity and feelings of spirituality are ignited when I work to purge myself of bad feelings and negative thoughts. When we make room in our hearts and soul for G-d, then He happily joins with us in simcha and toward the repairing of the world itself (tikkun olam).