By Yochanan Gordon
Last Shabbos, Parashas Lech Lecha, we were introduced to our forefather Avraham. The Torah tells us that Avraham walked the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, which G-d promised to him and his offspring after him. Well, last Shabbos my wife arranged playdates for our kids on opposite ends of the community, so although we may not have walked the length and breadth of Eretz Yisrael, we were walking the length and breadth of Cedarhurst in order to drop them off at their respective locations. The Tzemach Tzedek used to say when people would ask him if they should make aliyah, “Mach da Eretz Yisrael.” He would say to make your current location into Eretz Yisrael.
At one point during that excursion across the length and breadth of Cedarhurst, I turned to my wife and said that at one point or another over Shabbos I begin to think of what I will write about in the coming week. Maybe one of the halachic adjudicators reading this can write to me regarding whether or not the thought of what I will be writing about constitutes preparation from Shabbos to chol. Now that I am giving it some thought, since a lot of what I write borders on Torahdike content, perhaps that carries this into the realm of permissibility. But that remains to be seen.
As I sit here typing these words, this column should have already been submitted. I’m letting you know that so that you, the reader, understand just how much and how long I was agonizing over what to write about. It has been almost two years since I made the decision to write this weekly column. I am not sure whether I have expressed this feeling in the last two years, but since I committed to doing this weekly, regardless of whether I have planned a topic in advance or not, it always comes together in due time. I mention this because it’s a great lesson regarding the power of commitment. When you get into the habit of doing something meaningful, there is a Divine spirit that always intervenes, as the Gemara in Yoma states, “Ba l’taher mesayen oso”—one who comes with the intention to purify is assisted in doing so.
Avraham Avinu was predisposed to kindness and to joy, both of which emanate from the same source. I had resolved to write only about the power of joy when the news reached me that a good friend of the family, someone with whom my wife had grown up and remains extremely close to until today, received the grim news that her cancer diagnosis was more severe than the doctors and she and her family were hoping and praying for. The truth is that even now, although it is more advanced than they were praying for, testing is ongoing to determine just how aggressive they will be in combating it.
I overheard my wife talking to her in the beginning of the week when the news was initially conveyed to us. The one thing I noticed while they spoke was the calmness in her voice and the positivity that she almost naturally seemed to exude. She kept rehashing the fact that she is a firm believer in Hashem and that often, upon further analysis, doctors realize mistakes in their initial diagnosis and that she is, in her words, hoping for a miracle.
I didn’t want to write about this. I wanted to respect their privacy so I am not writing any names, but I also was wary of piquing the curiosity of anyone reading this who might try to figure out who I am referring to. However, the more I tried to divert my attention to another topic, it seemed that I kept being Divinely redirected to this topic.
I have a neighbor with whom I learn two sichos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe every week, as part of a project to finish the entire Likkutei Sichos in eight years. This week’s sichah was on the topic of the wells that Avraham and Yitzchak built and the contrary interpretations of Rav Moshe Zakuto, commentator on the Zohar, and the Rebbe’s father, Reb Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, who was a bona fide Kabbalist in his own right, in explaining why the Torah refers to the wells that Avraham built as Yitzchak’s wells, which Chazal say bears testimony. The sichah was a contrast between Kabbalah and Chassidus on the emotions of fear and joy and whether fear supplements joy as the main emotional driving force of a Jew, or joy supplements fear and awe as the main ingredient in healthy Jewish living.
A day later I saw a WhatsApp message in one of the many groups that I am subscribed to that was a replay of an address given by Rabbi Meir Elkabas, an author and educator on Breslov.org, in which he spoke about the importance of joy in the philosophy of Reb Nachman and his main disciple Reb Nosson of Breslov. Before I clicked the play button I had not been aware of the topic, but when he started retelling a story from the writings of Reb Nosson on the importance of joy I could no longer look away from the topic that had initially planted itself in my consciousness.
I feel funny being the one to write about the importance of simcha, as there are other people more qualified to address this topic. However, since I already recently wrote about my own mono and Lyme diagnoses in recent weeks, and my natural proclivity towards hypochondria, perhaps this is an opportunity not to preach but to convince myself, with you listening in, of the importance of attaining true joy in life.
There is a famous teaching of the Maggid of Mezeritch on the Mishnah in Avos that states, “Da mah l’ma’alah mimcha.” Up until the point that I saw the Maggid’s interpretation about 20 years ago, I always learned that the Mishnah is exhorting us to be aware of G-d above us at all times. However, the Maggid explains, “You should know that whatever exists above is from within you.” The profundity of this teaching is very difficult to overstate. We often feel that we were dealt the raw end of the deal, in one way or another, in life. If we could just train ourselves to think positively, in more ways than not, we could be the masters of our own destiny.
Another WhatsApp message I received earlier this week was an excerpt from a sefer with a message from Reb Simcha Bunim of Pshischa. The holy Rebbe wrote that the reason why “lightheaded” people often have it good in life is because they are always happy. He continues, “Although their simcha is rooted in frivolity and foolishness, the emotion of joy that is rooted in kindness draws a spirit of kindness upon them. People who are austere, or predisposed to fear, awe, and concern, by contrast, draw down a spirit of Divine judgment and sternness that often manifests itself as difficulty in livelihood and the like.” He concludes with the lesson, which is to strengthen ourselves in matters of joy.
I mentioned earlier that the young woman who was diagnosed expressed that she was hoping for a miracle. The important point here is that if we could train ourselves to exude happiness regardless of what our situation naturally warrants, we don’t need to rely on miracles. Joy itself is the antidote that could be the answer to all of our issues.
The more I thought about this, the more I realized that this is a message that everyone these days needs to read about. One doesn’t have to look too far to come across sadness-inducing news or messages; they are pretty much at hand anywhere we turn. Certainly, checking the news doesn’t help us crawl out of that space of sadness. However, there are books and sefarim and endless amounts of classes online that a person could dive into in an attempt to become more happy and joyous in life.
In a different sichah that I came across this week, the Rebbe writes that the only thing holding back the complete and final redemption is simcha. Not particularly simcha in our avodah, but, as he terms it, simcha b’taharasah, which means pure, unadulterated joy. To be happy for the sake of being happy.
Simcha possesses the same letters as chamisha, which corresponds to the fifth level of the soul known as the Yechidah, that part which ties us inextricably to the Divine. It is also the same root as the word Mashiach, which holds the key to all redemption, both individual and communal. If we are in need of salvation in one sense or another—and I haven’t come across anyone who isn’t—we need to start to surround ourselves with positive messaging, begin being more thankful for the things we can be thankful for, and watch as that spirit of positivity floods our lives and ushers in the ultimate joy with the coming of Mashiach right now.
I was back and forth regarding whether or not I should add the following; however, this person is in need of all the tefillos she can get. If you are reading this and can say Tehillim for Rochel Malya bas Yaffa Sheindel, perhaps in the merit of mass prayers she will ultimately see the salvation that she is seeking. May we all be able to share good news always.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.