Defining Happiness – Rav Itamar Schwartz (Bilvavi)

Rav Itamar Schwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh

Get a PDF of Repairing Your Simcha

The Source of Sadness

What is a person’s natural mood – to be happy (b’simchah), or to be sad (atzuv)? Without considering other possible factors that take away a person’s happiness – what is a person’s natural state? What is the source of our sadness, and what is the source of our happiness?

The source of sadness is clearly explained to us by our Sages. All sadness came onto the world as a result of the first sin of mankind. After the sin, Adam was cursed with the pain (“etzev”, which comes from the word “atzvus”, sadness) of hard work, and Chavah was also cursed with “etzev”, with the pains of child labor. If not for the first sin, it wouldn’t be possible for people to become sad.

So we know what causes sadness: sin. But what brings simchah\happiness? From where do we get our simchah from?

First, we need to define simcha\happiness – and then we can know what the source of it is.

The Two Kinds of Happiness

There are two kinds of simchah\happiness. One kind of happiness is when I am happy because of something; there can be many things that can cause me to be happy. Another kind of happiness is when I am happy for no reason at all; just like you can’t ask why dirt is dirt and why water is water, so is there a kind of happiness which you can’t explain why it is so. It just is.

In other words, there is an external kind of happiness, and an inner kind of happiness.

External Happiness vs. Inner Happiness

The external kind of happiness, which is to be happy based on a reason, is just the absence of sadness – but it isn’t really “happiness”. The inner kind of happiness, though is actual happiness; it is not just an absence of happiness. It is a happiness simply because that is the way we are created – to be able to be happy, without any reason.0F1

1 Editor’s Note: The Rav has spoken more about this concept in Getting To Know Yourself, where he mentioned the observation of the Brisker Rav zt”l, who pondered: Why is that children are naturally happy, whereas adults find it harder to be happy? As we go through life, we go through various circumstances which may harden us and damage the happiness which we were born with (but it is always there, deep down). The fact that children are naturally happy shows us that we are all born with a natural happiness that is not dependent of any one reason.

The first sin of mankind made it possible for a person to become sad; the curses that came to mankind are essentially forms of sadness, which did not exist in the desired plan of creation. Creation became altered through the sin and brought sadness to the world, making it possible for people to become sad. Not only that, but the sin also caused that we need a reason to become happy.

There is a mitzvah to rejoice on Yom Tov, but this is also happiness based on a reason. We celebrate all of the Fomim Tovim because we were taken out of Egypt. The deeper understanding of this is that the entire concept of Yom Tov came into creation as a result of sin as well. If not for the sin, we would have no need for festivals, because if we need a reason to be happy, this is all the result of the curse given to mankind, so it is cannot be the deepest source of our happiness.

In other words, to be happy “because” of something is that I need to be happy when I achieve something. This is the external kind of happiness.

By contrast, the real, perfect kind of happiness is a very inner kind of happiness. This is the happiness of the tzaddikim, who “rejoice in Hashem”. The inner kind of happiness is an intrinsic kind of happiness; it is when I am happy for no reason at all. This is the higher kind of happiness, which is experienced by tzaddikim.

The ultimate kind of happiness we should achieve on this world is the inner kind of happiness, which is to be happy with one’s intrinsic existence, and not to need any reason to be happy. But this inner happiness is usually concealed from us and it very far from our grasp.

Practically speaking, most people live off of their achievements, and not from their intrinsic existence. Happiness based on achievement is the lower kind of happiness, not the higher kind of happiness. Since that is the reality right now, we will focus our discussion on the lower kind of happiness and on how we can attain it.

Although it is not the ultimate kind of happiness, as we have explained, it is still a kind of happiness nonetheless. Thus, let us try to learn how to achieve it, so that we can at least have some degree of happiness.

Why Most People Aren’t Happy

Most people are not able to have constant happiness, and the reason for this is because they need to always see results, in order to be happy.

But when you are happy only when you get something, it’s like what is written, “Stolen waters are sweet.” The sweetness lasts only for when we have it, but when our achievements go away, we no longer have a reason to be happy. Such a happiness is based on what’s new in our life, so when it’s still new to us, it can give us happiness, but when it’s no longer new, the happiness goes away with it. Even the happiness of Yom Tov, which is a mitzvah, is only a temporary happiness. It is only three times a year.

In the future we will have the ultimate happiness, which is the happiness of the tzaddikim, who “rejoice in Hashem”. For now, we must try to at least have the lower kind of happiness, which is to be happy with our achievements.

Most people today don’t even have the lower kind of happiness, because they aren’t even aware what makes them happy. Many times you can ask a person, “Why are you happy?” and he says, “I don’t know…”

Is such a person happy because he’s such a ‘happy go lucky’ person that everything makes him so happy? That isn’t the reason for his response. It is simply that he isn’t aware to what makes him happy, and that’s why he doesn’t know if he’s happy.

Awareness To What Makes You Happy

The only way to be happy on this world is, to be aware as you’re doing something that will lead to your happiness. If you are aware what makes you happy (and you are involved in trying to achieve it), then you can be happy, but if you’re not aware as to what makes you happy, then you won’t achieve happiness.

If you are aware that you are on the way toward happiness (and you’re doing something to get there) you will be able to be happy. But if you’re not aware, then even when you get what you want and you’re happy, your happiness goes away as soon as whatever you get is no longer here anymore.

You must be aware to what makes you happy, and what makes you sad. This awareness is part of our journey toward happiness, and it has a lot to do with how you are happy or sad.

Being Happy Now, Before You Get What You Want

To illustrate what we mean, let’s say a person has a child after waiting twenty years for a child. He is ecstatic, but why? It’s not just because he has a child. It is because he waited so long. From here we can see that happiness depends on being aware of your journey toward whatever it is that you wanted to achieve. This is called a tahalich – a “journey”. We must always see the tahalich we are on, if we ever wish to be happy.

Let’s say a person is happy when he gets to his results, but he doesn’t care about what he did in order to get there. If that is his outlook on life, he will never be happy, even when he gets the results he wanted. We can see from one who has a baby after a long time of waiting; he isn’t just happy from the results, but he is happy only because he is aware of his journey in getting there. Without that awareness of what he had to go through to get his results – in this case, the birth of a child – he wouldn’t appreciate the child. Now that he had to wait so long, his joy knows no bounds when he finally has a baby.

The basic idea we learn from this is that in order to be happy, a person needs to be aware about his actual journey toward happiness. That means he has to be happy, even now – before he sees results. He’s on a tahalich toward happiness, and he has to see that’s he’s on that tahalich, if he is to appreciate what he’s striving for.

We can see that people lose their happiness very quickly, even after they get what they want. This is because they aren’t aware of the steps they took to get there and only focus on the results. When people only care about results, then whatever happiness they get vanishes with time.

Happiness – Feeling Like I’m Moving

When a person is doing something in order to become happy, he is really moving. He’s trying to gain happiness, so he’s moving toward it. The movement itself is what is making him happy (if he realizes it). It is our movements which make us happy.

We can see this from dancing. A person uses his feet to move; what does a person do when he is happy? He dances. He dances with which part of his body? His feet.

The depth behind this is that happiness is when we move. It’s not like how we are used to thinking, that we can only be happy when we arrive at what we want. Really, happiness is when we are happy with the very steps we are taking in order to get there. Thus, if we don’t have this awareness we won’t be happy, because our whole happiness can only come from appreciating how we’re moving towards it.

We are used to thinking that one can only be happy when he gets his results, and what he did to get there is meaningless; the main thing if he achieved or not. The usual mindset of people is to only value achievement, while efforts alone are regarded as meaningless. The truthful perspective, however, is that a person can only be happy with what he achieved only when he is aware with what he did to get there. Great achievements alone do bring one to have happiness. Only when we realize our efforts – as we are trying to achieve – will we be able to appreciate our achievements are receive happiness from them.

Happiness Defined: Awareness of Effort, Plus Achievement

It’s really two-fold: The results and the effort together make a person happy. If I am happy with only results but not with my efforts, I won’t even realize my own happiness when I get what I want, and I won’t be able to keep my happiness. But if when I get my results I am aware that I had to take a certain path to get there – I will be able to appreciate my achievement. So even when you are happy with your achievements, your happiness is really coming from how much you put into it to get there. If you have this awareness, you will be able to be happy with your achievement, but if you are not aware of this, then you won’t be happy – even when you finally get what you want.

Thus, the harder the struggle to get there, the more you enjoy the happiness when it comes. Like we see from the father who didn’t have children for a long time and finally had a child, he has much more profound kind of happiness, because the path he took to get there involved a lot of perseverance (and he recognizes that). The happiness of your achievement is really based on seeing the change to your situation, thus the greater you see how your situation changed from bad to good, the greater the happiness.

The Future Happiness

The happiness of the future redemption will also be this kind of happiness, but on a much higher level. It will be a major change to our situation, and that is why we will be so happy. It will be a very great happiness because of this long, painful exile we are in. The pain of this exile only adds to the quality of the future happiness. The depth of our whole exile is really that most people are only happy when they have results. But in the future, it will be revealed to all people the way to be happy with even the path to get there. Then, our happiness will be perfect. (For now, we cannot reach the perfect happiness, and thus we will have to settle with imperfect happiness, which we are describing).

Knowing Why We Are Happy

What we must ask ourselves is: are we happy with only our achievements, or are we happy even with what we are putting in in order to get there? We need to become aware what is making us happy. The way we are defining happiness here is not what we are used to. We will therefore elaborate more on the definition of happiness, and then these words will appear simpler.

Let’s say a person is happy when he achieves something. What does that mean? If you think about it, it’s not really a happiness that comes from getting what he wanted. It is really because he breathes a sigh of relief: “It’s finally over.”

Happiness is really to be happy with whatever it was that brought me to my happiness. How do we know this? Happiness is the opposite of sadness. Sadness is when a person puts in effort and doesn’t see results; a person is very sad when he fails after trying so hard to get something. If that is sadness, then happiness, which is the opposite of this, is the other way around: when a person is happy with doing something that brought him to what he wanted.

So happiness is not experienced when I get what I wanted; it is more about getting to what I want. Sadness, by contrast is when I don’t see results, and thus all my efforts are in vain – which makes me sad. (If I wouldn’t base my happiness on results, I wouldn’t be sad, because I could just appreciate my efforts.)

This is why it is not possible in this world to be totally happy, because all of us have some fruitless efforts; this makes us partially sad, even though we have other achievements. Chazal praise a person who “rejoices in his suffering”. The depth of this is that a person rejoices in the path he is on, which is that he is on his way toward being healed. It’s not that he has to enjoy his suffering for the sake of suffering; it is rather that he is happy because he recognizes that he is on a certain path (the road to his recovery, which may involve some suffering).

The Condition Needed

There is a condition for this kind of happiness to work: A person has to be able to see that he eventually will have results from what he is doing now. (This can either be because he has emunah, or because it just makes sense that he will see results from his efforts.)

Meaning, if a person just embarks on an unrealistic goal, he won’t be able to be happy, because realistically speaking, he can’t say that his efforts will get him any results. But if he is on a path in which his goal is a realistic possibility, then he’s able to be happy – even before he gets to his goal.

What is the understanding of this? Superficially, this is like when someone is told, “Don’t worry, everything will turn out good in the end.” But that is not the depth behind it.

A person is sad because he is doing something that is moving along slowly and fruitlessly – it doesn’t seem like he’s getting anywhere; he’s on a path which will not bear any results. Such a person indeed is not able to derive happiness from what he’s doing. Why? Happiness comes from moving toward a goal, and a person who doesn’t seem to be making any progress in what’s he’s doing isn’t moving.

But if someone is on a realistic undertaking to get toward a certain goal, then he can be happy now even before he gets to his goal, because he’s moving along a realistic path to get to a realistic goal, and that’s something that can give him happiness.

Now that we have understood this, it is apparent that a person cannot be happy even when he gets what he wanted to achieve if he wasn’t aware of how he got there. If a person is happy with his efforts, then he can be happy with his results, but if he isn’t happy with his efforts, he won’t even be happy either when he gets his results.

How To View Your Failures

Now we can go a step further with all this.

If a person understands this, he is able to make himself happy even “retroactively” – it is possible to undo all your frustration! How?

The whole reason why we ever became frustrated was because we failed in our life at certain situations; all of us have gone through failures and very difficult times. The only reason why we were frustrated at our failures was because we only wanted to see results, and we aren’t aware of the happiness we could have been having with the efforts we put in.

To illustrate, Chazal say1F2 that if a person tells you, “I tried, and I succeeded – believe him; but if he tells you, “I didn’t try, yet I succeeded” – don’t believe him.” The depth behind this is that in order for a person to really achieve, he needs to be aware of his efforts. If he wasn’t aware of his efforts, then he won’t even arrive at his achievement, so don’t believe him if he says, “I didn’t try yet I succeeded.”

When we don’t see results from our efforts, it makes us sad. It a death-like kind of feeling not to achieve, and it reminds a person of death, which is epitome of sadness.

But if a person is aware that he is on a path that can lead to results, he can be happy even before he sees results. Not only that, but even if he didn’t see any results in the end, he can turn all his frustration into happiness – by becoming aware that he put effort into something. After all, he engaged in a realistic, worthy undertaking. So what if he didn’t see results from it? He was involved in trying to achieve a realistic goal. That itself is a reason to be happy.

If we become aware now that we took certain steps to get to our results, then we can make ourselves happy with those efforts, even if they were failures!

In this way, we can turn all our sadness and frustration into happiness; we can clean ourselves up from all the “dirt” (sadness) that has piled up on our soul from all the years until now, and turn all of our bad experiences into happiness – when we remember that what causes us to be happy is our efforts, not our results. The whole reason that we weren’t happy in the first place was because we lacked the awareness of our efforts and only focused on the results, which we didn’t get. So now, become aware of all your efforts you made (which would have made you happy then, had you been aware of it), and you will discover that all of your frustration can be undone. It’s like giving your soul a cleaning.

Let’s Share the Joy

By Jonathan Rosenblum

A recent Israeli study concluded that chareidim are happier than their secular counterparts — and not just by a little bit. Sixty-two percent of the chareidim interviewed expressed a high degree of satisfaction with their lives, as opposed to just 26 percent of the secular Jews. And that is despite the fact that chareidim, on average, have far lower per capita incomes.

The study is just one in a long line of such studies yielding similar results. One team of Israeli researchers explained the life satisfaction differential in terms of the far higher levels of hakaras hatov (gratitude) and optimism among chareidim. A sense of gratitude, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement, is deeply ingrained in chareidi life. It starts first thing in the morning with Modeh Ani, and is reinforced throughout the day in countless ways, such as the recitation of asher yatzar.

Optimism goes hand in hand with the feeling that our lives are guided by a beneficent G-d. The confidence that good may come from even negative experiences comes naturally to chareidim raised from an early age on stories of Nachum Ish Gamzu and Rabi Akiva proclaiming, “Kol d’avid Rachmana l’tava avid — All that Heaven does is for the good.”

The very definition of “one who is happy” as “one who rejoices in his portion” reinforces both optimism and gratitude. The meaning of the mishnah in Avos (4:1) is that the key to happiness is the recognition that Hashem provides each of us with what we need for our mission in life. If that is the case, there is no reason to think that a greater measure of life’s “goodies” would enhance one’s ability to fulfill one’s mission. By the same token, optimism flows from knowing that one has been apportioned what one needs for that mission.

Researchers distinguish between two types of happiness: hedonic and eudaemonic. The latter refers to a general sense of well-being, and, in contrast to hedonic pleasure, is associated with a large number of positive outcomes: longer life expectancy, lower rates of heart disease, reduced chances of Alzheimer’s.

The four elements most identified with high levels of eudaemonia are intrinsic to an Orthodox life. The first is the awareness of a transcendent realm — i.e., of a G-d above. The second is belonging to a community. Communal prayer, shared life rhythms determined by the calendar, large families all provide a strong social support network for chareidim. A third element is the ability to present one’s life story as a coherent whole. That is something much easier for Orthodox Jews to do because they see their lives as guided by G-d. Finally, a sense that one’s life has meaning. There are multiple sources for that meaning and purpose, including Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s extended description in Nefesh HaChaim of how each thought, work, action has the power to open up pipelines of blessing to the world.

FROM THE HIGHER LEVELS of life satisfaction among chareidim, I take away two messages. First, it is not just that the Torah contains many life prescriptions that if followed will make people happier; but also that Jews who define themselves by their commitment to Torah really do take those prescriptions seriously. And as a consequence, their whole approach to life differs radically from that of the world outside our community. In short, the Torah’s message penetrates our inner psyches.

My second takeaway is how much we have to offer our fellow Jews, indeed the world at large. Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to say, “In an insane world, we are the least insane.” By that, he meant (I think) that being an observant Jew does not guarantee a blissful marriage, or that one will be a perfect parent, or that our children will fulfill all our dreams for them. Nothing goes without constant work on our middos, which, according to Rav Chaim Vital, are scarcely mentioned directly in the Torah because they are the precondition for the acceptance of Torah.

Yet we have been given a set of rules by which to live that provide the greatest possibility of human fulfillment because they come from the Creator of human nature, and thus comport with it.

Of late, I find myself thinking that much of modern existence has become completely unmoored from human nature, particularly the imperative of family formation without which humankind cannot survive. My most recent data point is an excellent article by Suzy Weiss at her older sister Bari’s site, in which she interviews young women, one only 19, who have had or are planning operations to ensure that they never bear children. Their reasons vary. One cites her plan to retire early and travel the world unencumbered by responsibilities; another, her lousy parents and wish to avoid their mistakes; a third, the inevitability of some suffering in even the most blessed life; a fourth, a desire not to add to the toll on Mother Earth from too many humans.

While their stories do not alone prove a trend, Weiss brings evidence of the decline in matrimony and childbearing as well. American marriage rates are at an all-time low — 6.5 per thousand. Millennials (born 1981–1996) are the first generation in which a majority (56 percent) are unmarried at this stage in their lives, and more likely to be living with their parents in their twenties and thirties.

In half the states, deaths outnumbered births last year; the preceding year, that was the case in only five states. Nearly two-fifths of Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) are afraid of having children because of the impending climax apocalypse. A survey of a representative sample of American adults conducted in Michigan found that over one-quarter are childless by choice. In San Francisco, dogs outnumber children.

We are now 60 years into the revolution that set out to release human pleasure to hitherto undreamed of heights by tearing down all traditional norms of courtship and marriage. Yet like most revolutions, it did not quite turn out like it was supposed to. Instead of increasing joy, the revolution has been accompanied by higher rates of mental illness, anxiety, and depression in every subsequent generation.

Men and women have been turned into two suspicious, warring camps, to the benefit of neither. Finding themselves constantly condemned for their toxic masculinity, many males at some point stopped trying. On American college campuses today, women outnumber men by a 60:40 ratio, and are the majority of law and medical students. But women’s very success has not come without a cost, particularly the absence of men with whom to build a life and family.

An article in Quillette a few months back noted that women are hard-wired to look for men who will serve as providers and protectors. But for the most educated and highest-earning cohort of women, those men are increasingly hard to find. And once found, enticing them into marriage is even harder.

The highly sought-after kind of men whom high-powered women view as marriage material are not so concerned with their partner’s earning capacity and have a wide selection of younger women to choose from. They often feel little impulse to commit at all. As a consequence, about 30 percent of the women in the most educated and highest earning cohort will never marry.

Baruch Hashem, we still live in a society in which the desire is marry and raise children is the nearly unanimous default position. I have no doubt that the richness of familial bonds has a great deal to do with our higher level of feelings of well-being.

But that must not remain our secret alone. Chazal tell us that Yaakov Avinu lost 33 years from his life, one year for each word of his complaint about the difficulties he had endured, in response to Pharaoh’s question — “How old are you?” But there are only 25 words in Yaakov’s answer. Rav Noach Weinberg used to explain, Yaakov Avinu was punished as well for the eight words in Pharaoh’s question, which was provoked by his downtrodden countenance.

Let us not repeat that mistake, but rather project joy in all that we do.

Originally published in Mishpacha Magazine, November 3, 2021
http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/2140/let-share-the-joy

A Piece of Destiny

Note: I wrote this for my friends from my childhood neighborhood, so it contains more background than usual.

I wasn’t on the original wedding invite list. In fact Shlomo and I have only been good friends for a few months, after I started to attend a sunrise minyan on Shabbos morning. Let me explain.

I’ve been acting as the Covid coordinator for my main Shul since the crisis began. That involved making sure our rules are followed and deciding whether to split our minyan, depending on attendance, to give us more social distancing. It’s hard to concentrate on the prayers and coordinate, so I would daven at an early minyan and then take up my coordinator duties at my Shul. About 6 months ago, the early minyan I was davening at changed their times and I could no longer finish with them and get to my Shul in time, so I needed to look for an alternative.

The Orthodox community is broadly divided between the Ashkenazic Jews who lived in northern countries like England, France, Germany and Eastern Russia and the Sefardic Jews from countries like Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Syria and Iran. Within the Ashkenazim there is a breakdown into Chassidim, like Chabad (Crown Heights), Satmar (Williamsburg), and Bobov (Boro Park) and non Chassidim, which breaks down between the Yeshivish Orthodox (e.g. Lakewood, Parts of Brooklyn) and Modern Orthodox (e.g. Five Towns in Long Island, Teaneck). The prayer services are similar overall, but there are enough textual and cultural differences that people generally daven at a minyan which is most aligned with their background.

There are over 40 Shabbos minyanim in Kew Gardens Hills and the Shabbos morning davening takes about 2 hours. Kew Garden Hills is a mix of Yeshivish Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Bukharian (Uzbekistan) Sefardim. When I needed to find a new minyan, I ended up at Sefardic minyan, because it was down the block from my main Shul and they start and finish very early. The minyan I joined sets the davening times so that we start the silent Shemoneh Esrai prayer, the most important part of the service, at sunrise. The start of davening ranges from 5:00 a.m. in the summer to 7:00 a.m. in the winter.

Although I originally selected this minyan for the ending time, the davening was at a slow pace, which I like, with lots of Sefardic Spirit, and a sit down kiddush after davening. The kiddush is filled with warmth, good food, l’chaims and words of Torah. After a few weeks I felt like an integral part of this group as they welcomed me with open arms. Besides myself, the group is all Sefardic and comfortable speaking Hebrew, but they switch to English to accomodate me. I’m thrilled to have a new group of friends to share a part of my Shabbos.

Shlomo, a Persian Jew, is part of the group, and last Shabbos he told me that he would really like me to attend his son’s wedding in Lakewood. Since the drive to Lakewood takes about 2 hours, people from Queens often charter a coach bus when they make a wedding in Lakewood. The benefit is that you don’t have to drive, but you’ll being staying to the end of a 5 hour affair. With the bus rides, this amounts to about a 9 hour slice of time. I’m somewhat busy at work, but I decided to make the trip for my new friend.

An Orthodox wedding is structured with an intial greeting period of about 1 hour where some food and drinks are served. There’s usually separate areas for the groom and the men and the bride and the women. The men will sometimes go to the women’s side where there is usually better food. During this period the Ketubah, or Jewish marriage agreement, is signed. After the signing is the Bedekin ceremony, where the men escort the groom to the bride’s area. At the Bedekin, the groom removes a veil from the bride according to Jewish tradition, and the fathers of the bride and groom give blessings to the bride. After the Bedekin, the guests make their way to the area where the Chuppah, or marriage ceremony, takes place. After the ceremony there is a 1 hour break for pictures of the bride and groom and their families. The guests are seated for the first course of the meal. After about an hour the first dance begins, with separate areas for the men and the women. The first dance lasts for about 45 minutes and is followed by the main course and a 30 minute break. This is followed by the second dance for about an hour. Following the second dance, seven blessings for the bride and groom are made and the wedding ends.

Our bus arrived while the Bedekin was taking place. As I entered the hall I spotted a familiar face, a childhood friend. I went over and asked the woman her name and she said Tina Taus Weissman, probably wondering who this black-hatted man was. I introduced myself and we shared a “This is Unbelievable” moment.

Tina works with the bride’s mother and she told me that when she heard that the groom was from Kew Gardens Hills, she thought that maybe I would be at the wedding, knowing that I lived in Kew Gardens Hills. As I mentioned above, it was a recent series of events, resulting in a new friendship, that brought me there. We talked for about 10 minutes and then had to make our way to the wedding ceremony area. I assured Tina that the groom was a wonderful young man with impeccable character from a fine family, which made her happy.

Although there was plenty of food, drink, singing, dancing and cameraderie at the wedding, the thing that I will remember is seeing Tina there. Like many people here, Tina and I go back to kindergarden, close to 60 years ago. We still remember sitting next to each other in 1st grade when John F Kennedy was shot. We spent a lot of quality childhood years together which created an unbreakable bond. Many of us here experience that ongoing eternal connection with others in this group.

The Torah teaches us that the destination of this world is an unparalled unity between our bodies and our souls, between humanity and G-d and among all of humanity. Every encounter, every act of kindness, every expression of love contributes to building that unity. In retrospect, it should be no surprise that Tina and I met in Lakewood last Thursday, as that is a part of the destiny that G-d is continually guiding us.

May we all merit to see that culmination of that process when the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will all be part of One World, Under G-d, with Liberty and Justice for all.

Simcha: A Sign of the Times

R’ Jared Viders
Ohr Somayach Monsey

Now that Shavous is in the rear view mirror, the days seem somewhat amorphous in the unfolding drama of the Jewish calendar. Whereas other seasons carry distinct flavors – be it the Teshuva of Elul in preparation of Rosh Hashanah or the 49 days of the Omer in preparation to Shavous – it’s difficult to identify a particular theme in the weeks and months to come.

Interestingly, Rav Ovadiah Bartinera – one of the foremost commentaries on the Mishna – (1450-1510) labels the days between Shavous and Sukkos as “times of joy” – an appellation which immediately strikes us as misplaced in light of the more somber fast days that appear “next up” on our Jewish calendars.

Nevertheless, with simcha (“joy”) being the theme of these days, it is eminently appropriate and inestimably worthwhile to give some thought to the mechanics of the Torah’s view on “simcha” – its centrality to our lives and a recipe (or two) as to how to keep it vibrant.

The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) writes “the very first mitzvah one should be fulfilled by a bar mitzvah boy upon his reaching his 13th year is to rejoice and be happy to accept the mitzvahs of Hashem; for being b’simcha is a positive mitzvah in the Torah, i.e., to serve with joyousness and good-heartedness emanating from all the goodness which has been bestowed upon you.” Several noted Torah sages over the centuries have all identified simcha as the coin of the realm in terms of one’s personal growth and religious fulfillment.

The Orchas Tzaddikim (a well-known Sefer anonymously written in the 15th century) offers a line which should be kept close to the heart of every Ba’al Teshuvah. In the “Gate of Happiness,” he writes, “the attribute of joy hinges on the positive commandment to see all that befalls a person as being just … for if after one does Teshuvah, he finds that matters are not as pleasant as they were beforehand, it is a mitzvah to think in one’s heart” that all the seeming “turbulence” is truly a gift from Heaven that is ultimately for own best interests. Over the centuries, this gem has provided strength and inspiration to many a Ba’al Teshuvah grappling with the changes in their lives and some of the disturbing repercussions – family, professional, social, etc. – that invariably come with the territory.

Practically speaking, the contemporary sefer Alei Shor (written by a master of character perfection Rav Shlomo Wolbe) suggests a relatively simple exercise to stimulate one’s simcha mindset. In two of our morning blessings – specifically when we thank G-d for (1) “providing me my every need” and (2) for “firming my footsteps” one should utter them with “abundant contemplation” and a “great strengthening of one’s emunah (belief).” This tiny exercise, the Alei Shur writes, can, over a period of several months instill in a person the true rejoicing and satisfaction with one’s lot in life which is the hallmark of true Jewish “simcha.”

May we merit to strive for an internalize true joyfulness in the days and weeks to come.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on Happiness

Aish HaTorah’s Project Inspire sent an email in March 2006 with some thoughts from Rabbi Weinberg on the subject of happiness and suggested we share it with friends and family. Since we’re in the period of happiness in the Jewish Calendar we decided to repost it:

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on Happiness

1. There are many important things we all seek in life – happiness, love and success amongst others. Judaism teaches that a crucial tool for living is to have clear definitions for these important concepts.

People can often spend many years of life striving for something that they think will give them happiness – the right job, the right girl, working my way up the corporate ladder, retirement, the new home etc, but when they actually get it, they’re still miserable!

Why? – Because they didn’t take the time to define what happiness really is. Instead, they simply went for what society says will give them happiness or what they might feel might bring them happiness. Defining happiness would have saved them a lot of time and unnecessary pain.

People often say – you can’t define happiness. Interestingly, Judaism actually gives a definition. Let me explain.

2. If I offer you a thousand dollars for your eyes – is it a deal?
How’s about 10K? 100K? 1M?… As much money as I offer you, you’ll turn me down – right? Your eyes are worth more to you than all the money in the world.

3. So, now, imagine that I’m very wealthy, and after speaking to you for half an hour, I take a liking to you – so much so, that I say to you: let me give you this brief case as a gift. You take the brief case and open it up and look inside. You see wads of $100 bills. There’s a million dollars in there for you from me – no strings attached.
How would you feel – if it were really true? Wouldn’t you feel like a million dollars?! Wouldn’t you be doing a jig down the street?

Now, if you ask someone: You have eyes – how do you feel? Most people say: “the same miserable person I was before you asked me!” But, if our eyes are worth more to us than any money, and we’d feel ecstatic for the million, shouldn’t we feel even more ecstatic that we have eyes? Shouldn’t we be doing that jig down the street, all the more?

4. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that we get used to things – we take things for granted. Someone gets a beautiful Porsche for his birthday. He feels grand. Come back in a couple of months – he’s miserable again!

Happiness is therefore defined as the emotion of pleasure that we feel when we appreciate what we have.

Misery is the reverse. To be thoroughly miserable – just take all your blessings for granted, and focus on what you don’t have. The fact is that it’s much easier to focus on what you don’t have than what you do – we just slide right into it. It’s easier to get up in the morning and think: oh no – another work day at that miserable job… and I can’t believe it’s raining again…and I hate that train ride – especially all those weird & miserable people on the subway… and I wish my work-mates wouldn’t be so irritating…and my boss is so controlling…. etc

The trick of happiness is to learn how not to take things for granted.

If you can get used to your eyes you can get used to anything. You’ll get used to the new car, the new home, the new wife, the kids… If we don’t appreciate what we have – there’s no point getting any more – we’ll just get used to that too!
If you learn how to appreciate your eyes, you can learn how to appreciate all the gifts of life. That’s why every morning in Judaism we get up and say, thank you G-d for giving me life. We appreciate that we can think, see, have clothes, can walk, and that we have all our needs both physical and spiritual. We say blessings on food – to appreciate the food that we eat and not to take it for granted.

Each one of us has eyes, ears, a heart that pumps, hands and legs, friends and family – gifts worth more to us than any money. Each one of us is a walking multi-millionaire, even if we wouldn’t have a penny to our names. Only by learning how to appreciate the gifts we already have, how rich we truly are, can be truly happy.

Some Random Thoughts on My Daughter and Son-in-law’s Upcoming Chasanah

Tonight’s the big night and we are grateful to Hashem for this joyous occasion. Here are some random thoughts:

– It is possible to go from engagement to Wedding date in under 10 weeks

– Getting your response cards in early is really appreciated

– Sending a check with the response card, if you’re planning on giving a gift is a great idea

– Just like there is a wonderful change in family configuration on the birth of a newborn, so to there is a wonderful change with the addition of a son-in-law

– Focusing on the tremendous simcha makes the occasion even more enjoyable and many people have advised us that is even more important on the night of the Chasanah

– Every marriage is part of the continuing chain of the Jewish People, so it is a simcha everybody can share

– The time, energy and effort going into the Chasanah is a wonderful celebration of the beginning of a new couple’s dedicated service to Hashem

– Extending the family with great Machatunim is a wonderful feeling