Are you happy? Can you define what happiness is?
Happiness is mysterious and elusive. We know it when we have it, but we’re not certain how to find it or to maintain it. We chase it with all sorts of tools and strategies, but often come up empty and exhausted. And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, we happen upon it and revel in it temporarily, but then it is gone and we’re not sure where it went and how to get it back.
Happiness in Torah is not happenstance. It is a practice and a commandment.
In Psalms we are instructed “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha/serve God with joy” (Psalms 100:2). This is not a suggestion or an encouraging piece of advice, as if to say we must serve God anyway, so we may as well try to enjoy it. It’s not even a blessing, assuring us that if we serve God, it will be with joy – the proof of this is that there are plenty who believe that they are serving God, and they may in fact be fulfilling His commandments diligently, but they are not joyful. “Serve God with joy” is a directive and an obligation. It is a principle that informs us that it is only through simcha/joy that we can serve God truly.
This is displayed in this week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, when Moses delivers to the people the “tochacha/rebuke,” a long list of “curses” that will befall them in the future if they do not pursue the proper path. Examining Moses’ words carefully, we find that the path which must be followed is not merely, as one may think, the fulfillment of God’s commandments.
“All of these curses will befall you … because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything” (Deuteronomy 28:45-47).
The Chasidic masters note that it does not say that the curses will be the consequence of failing to serve God, but rather failing to serve God “with happiness and gladness of heart.” The implication here is astonishing: if one were to serve God fastidiously, to perform all of His positive commandments and to abstain from all of His prohibitions, yet s/he did so without joy – either begrudgingly or even simply by rote with no emotion whatsoever – then s/he is liable to the strict consequences which Moses has previously enumerated. We see from this that if we desire to pursue the path that God provides us, we must “ivdu es Hashem b’simcha/serve God with joy,” for this is the only way to truly serve Him at all.
But this presents us a quandary. How are we to fulfill this commandment to be joyful? Can you really command an emotion? From here we learn that true and lasting happiness is not merely an emotion, it is an avoda/service. It is not something that happens to you, but something that you must sow and cultivate constantly. Moments of joy may be happened upon, but if so they are fleeting and unreliable. In order to maintain happiness, to “serve God with simcha,” one must exercise joy and develop the proper “muscles” to grasp and hold onto it.
In truth, every mitzvah is a practice. Torah is not simply a book of philosophy or a system of faith; it is a series of actions and meditations that enable one to develop her/his inner vision and thus ultimately fulfill the task of revealing God. One of the most essential and powerful components of the practice is prayer. Three prayer services a day invite one to step away from the facade of the physical world and to reconnect to the reality that is hidden beneath.
At the beginning of the morning prayer service, which is performed at the dawn of the new day before engaging in any other activities, one recites a prayer called “Hodu.” The third verse of this prayer provides us instruction on how to develop our simcha muscles: “Yismach leiv m’vakshei A-donai/Happy of heart is the one who seeks God” (Psalms 105:3).
This statement is puzzling. Why is one happy if s/he is looking for something? If s/he is seeking it, then this means that s/he has not found it, so why would s/he be happy? Seemingly, it would make more sense if it read ‘happy is the one who finds God.’ But the one who is looking, who looks daily and constantly but does not find what s/he seeks, wouldn’t s/he be more inclined to be frustrated or anxious rather than happy? We might say that such a person is passionate, or driven, or hopeful even, but why happy? Are we happy when we lack what we seek, or is it when we achieve our goal that we are truly joyous?
The message here is powerful, and it is placed at the beginning of the daily service because it is essential for one to remind her/himself of it as s/he sets out anew each morning: Joy is not merely in the achievement, but in the pursuit. It is not only in the reward, but in the attempt. It is not primarily in the afterlife, but in the lifelong exertion and toil, as the sages teach, “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the world to come” (Pirkei Avos 4:17). Why is this so?
We might understand how unrewarded labor is “great” from God’s perspective, greater even than all of the rewards in the world to come, because such service is unselfish and altruistic. From God’s perspective this type of commitment and perseverance may be praiseworthy and precious. But where is the joy for the one who must toil in the dark day after day? How can we truly say that “happy of heart is the one who seeks God?” The verse does not say that joy is brought to God by the one who seeks daily, but rather that the seeker’s own heart is happy. What is the source of this seemingly unreasonable happiness?
It is the knowledge that that which one seeks is there to be found! One is happy when s/he believes wholeheartedly that s/he can find what s/he is searching for, and that s/he is on the right path. One sings in the dark because though s/he may be lost, though s/he has not yet discovered what s/he is after, s/he knows that it is close and that there is nothing that can ultimately keep her/him from it. One is happy because s/he knows that s/he was made to search, that this is precisely what s/he was placed in this realm of darkness to do.
Unhappiness is not the result of our goal being as yet unfulfilled. Unhappiness is the abandonment of the search, the resignation and despair that come when we convince ourselves that we will never find what we are after and we decide to try no more. God does not exist, we determine, or perhaps He is out there somewhere but I do not have the strength, wisdom, or wherewithal to find Him. The moment we give up, any joy we knew is gone. Further, this surrender will lead to a sense of failure and a deeper melancholy that stems from the sense that I am not good, I am not doing what I should be doing, I am not being what I should be. Unhappiness is guilt and shame, self-judgment and self-loathing.
Happiness, on the contrary, is the sense that the world, with all its imperfection, is just as it was created to be, and I, with all my imperfections, am just as I was created to be. I was created imperfect. I was placed into an “olam/world” of “helam/concealment.” That is nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing to be afraid of. The darkness is not frightening, it is God hiding Himself because He wants me to exist as an separate being so that He can give to me. He wants me to seek Him and find Him and reveal Him, and He created me with the ability to do so. He will not make it easy, because ease is not love. Ease will keep one small and feeble, while challenge will give one strength and confidence and dignity. Challenge provides the fortitude to withstand the darkness and find what we are looking for.
“Yismach lev m’vakshei Hashem” – happy is the one who seeks Him. We know that we may be forever seeking – as the subsequent verse of the “Hodu” prayer says, “bakshu panav tamid/seek His face always” – and that is okay, as that is what we were created to do. As long as we understand our purpose and we pursue it, as long as we recognize the root of our challenges and see the darkness itself as a condition for our existence and a precursor for the ultimate light, we will sing with joy as we venture into the unknown.
On an even deeper level, the one who seeks God in the darkness is joyous because s/he knows a secret that those who believe that God is only to be found in the light do not know. S/he knows from the “Shema” prayer that God is One, the one and only. Therefore, s/he recognizes that the darkness is God as much as the light is, and so no matter how dark it gets, God is always present and there is nothing to fear.