Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously said,
מִצְוָה גְּדוֹלָה לִהְיוֹת בְּשִׂמְחָה תָּמִיד
It is a great mitzvah to be happy always.
His words are often invoked in the month of Adar, especially as we approach the holiday of Purim. It is helpful to know that Rebbe Nachman was a person who suffered tremendously in his life. Lest we think these are the words of a naively and naturally joyous person. Quite the opposite.
Joy is existentially and practically very complicated. We long for it. We fear it. Reflecting on this teaching, I was reminded of a story in my own life.
About twenty years ago I was visiting a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan and found myself in an elevator with a group of nuns. There was an unspoken ethos of silence, even when not in formal sitting practice. But I couldn't help myself. I had the captive attention of these young nuns. They were at once peers and from another world, another way of life.
My impulsive western mind quickly asked them the first question that came to mind: "Are you happy?" I feel some shame for the judgement embedded in this question and also deep compassion for my young seeking self, trying to understand happiness.
The nuns responded, "Yes. But it is a different kind of happiness." This answer has surely stayed with me. Long before I had a meditation practice of my own, I had this sense that there are different kinds of happiness. Science has actually studied it. Whatever special machine measures the happiness of the brain has registered off the chart levels of happiness for monks and nuns coming off of extended retreats.
And Judaism knows this too.
We sing of the great varieties of human joy in the seven wedding blessings, gilah rinah ditzah v'chedvah, ahavah v'achavah v'shalom v'reut...Blessing the Source of Life who created joy and gladness, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing, love and harmony and peace and companionship.
And the list continues in a verse that comes from Megillat Esther, which is also sung weekly at the beginning of Havdalah, "Layehudim hayetah orah v'simcha v'sason vikar. Kein tehiyeh lanu. The Jews had light, happiness, joy, and honor. May we have the same."
Jewish tradition is replete with teachings about it. The boost of Joy that characterizes the month of Adar and the holiday of Purim is also deeply linked to another Jewish holiday, Sukkot, referred to as zman simchateinu, the season of our Joy.
At this time of year, I often refer back to Alan Lew's teachings on Joy. He describes "the special joy of being flush with life...Joy as a deep release of the soul and it includes death and pain...any experience we give our whole being to...any moment fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy" (265,7).
I think this is the joy that the nuns were describing in that elevator. And the kind of joy that Rebbe Nachman is compelling us towards. And frankly, the kind of joy that is always and especially now accessible and necessary for each of us.
As we enter Shabbat, and come closer to the holiday of Purim, may we each have the courage to more fully inhabit even just one moment, to know our pain and gratitude so fully, that it fills us with deep joy.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.