What is Joy
Purim, by far, is one of the more festive Jewish holidays; we dress up, we drink, we feast. Joy would most certainly be a word to describe the day. Yet, what is joy? Is joy the same thing as happiness? How does a Jew approach joy? How does the Purim story itself inform the concept of joy?
Let’s begin with the following statement: joy is not an emotion. So then what is joy? Joy is a state of being. Joy does not depend on any “thing”. If that “thing” is taken away, then the joy is taken away?However, that cannot be. We are told, “Because you would not serve your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything׃ you shall have to serve—in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything—the enemies whom will let loose against you.” (Devarim 28:47). Hashem needs us to serve Him with joy on a consistent basis. If joy is dependent on everything going well, it is not possible to be consistently joyous.
Thus, one must make a distinction between joy and happiness. Joy is an attitude that one works towards as they come closer to fulfilling Hashem’s will. On the other hand, happiness is an emotion that depends much more on “things”. Happiness can be a vehicle to express joy, it can also be a product of joy, but it is not joy itself.
So, what can one do in order to work towards this cryptic concept of joy? Let’s go back to the quote from Devarim, “Because you would not serve your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything…” (Devarim 28:47). Abundance of everything? What is this abundance of everything? Do you have all the money, all the luxury, all the success in the world? May be, but most likely not. Yet, the quote seems to indicate that the natural state of being, at least for a Jew, is that we have an abundance of everything. Let me ask you, what is one thing that every Jew shares? The Torah! Hashem, the Creator of every blade of grass, the Creator of the entire universe, the Creator of you and me, gave us, the Jewish people, the instruction manual to His creation. When we follow this guidebook, wholeheartedly, Hashem gives us exactly what it is that He decides that we need!
All this does not mean that negative circumstances do not occur. People still experience pain and meet challenges in life. However, when a person knows that it is Hashem who places us in every circumstance we face, whether it is a blessing…or a blessing in disguise, and together with this circumstance He gives us the biggest treasure in the world, the Torah, in order to serve Him and unlock His concealed purpose in the circumstance He place us in, one is imbued with a deeper connection to Hashem. This brings a sense of deep faith and true satisfaction that can uncover Hashem’s purpose in anything one faces.
What are the Practical and Spiritual Implications of Joy?
Let us take a step back and reanalyze the following quote: “Because you would not serve your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything׃ you shall have to serve—in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything—the enemies whom will let loose against you.” (Devarim 28:47). We have established that since we have the Torah, we have everything. Thus, when we do not sincerely appreciate Hashem and the treasure He gives us, then Hashem makes us serve our enemies. The question here is: who is the enemy that Hashem speaks of?
The enemy is two fold: personal as well as national. On a personal level, when we do not serve Hashem’s will with joy, our yetzer hara takes over. When the Torah is seen as a burden, G-D forbid, a person looks to cheap, fake alternatives to fill their soul. They seek what we call today “self-care”. This manifests itself in narcissism, selfishness, thinking about one’s “needs” and “happiness” over one’s obligation and responsibilities. Yes, taking care of oneself is necessary, but it is for the purpose of giving ourselves to the world. When one keeps fine tuning a piano, yet never plays it, it is as if the piano does not exist; it is not fulfilling its purpose. When we continuously put all attention on the self above our mission, responsibilities, and obligations, it is as if the person does not exist. Purposelessness is one of the scariest conditions that a human being can find themselves in. It is the exact thing that narcissism and selfishness seeks to cure; yet they are the very culprits that create this horrifying condition. It is an addictive, vicious cycle that leads to anxiety and depression, the gateway drugs that allow our yetzer hara to enslave and torment us.
On the national level, when we do not strive to serve Hashem sincerely, we fall to our literal, physical enemies. Through our lack of appreciation for Hashem, we are forced to become prey to other “masters”. These other “masters” (the nations), torment us; yet it is through their torment that they remind us that we have a Master to turn back to.
Why was Haman satisfied when the lot for our destruction fell on Adar? Because Moshe passed away in the month of Adar. Haman must have reasoned that since Hashem seemingly disowned our nation by exiling us, Haman could now wield nature, since G-D was out of the picture, G-D forbid. Nature is random, much like the lots he placed, and with that he thought he could control our destiny. The evil Haman thought that the Jewish people will fall in spirit when finding out that their destruction coincides with our greatest leader’s passing. Haman was not a stupid man; he was deeply connected to the fact that our sorrow and despair could distance us from our life source, Hashem’s Torah, and as such, grant him a passage to victory. There was only one thing that could save us: a return to Hashem, a return to His Torah. Otherwise, nature would have run its course on us like it did on so many other nations, chas veshalom.
Indeed, Haman was wrong. Moshe passed away in Adar…and he was also born in Adar! Moshe was the driving force against idolatry, and perhaps it was in his merit that Mordechai was able to inspire the Jewish people to not fall into the despair of “nature’s” fate for us. Despair and submission to nature are really the same thing; they both are forms of idolatry, as one rejects Hashem’s ability to bring redemption in even the most dire of circumstances; circumstances that in the natural order of things seem insurmountable. When we return to Hashem, He can turn any situation, even the most terrible, into the biggest blessing.
We see this very clearly in the story of Purim. Haman attempted to make himself into an idol, trying to force Mordechai, and by that extent, the Jewish nation, to bow down to him instead of Hashem. Yet, our people did not fall into despair. Rather, we turned whole heartedly to Hashem, to His Torah; the exact antidote to Haman’s evil plans. Better yet, we did it with joy. And when we did so, we defeated the Persians in battle, and inspired many more to convert. Perhaps it was in the merit of Moshe’s birth month that we found the power to overcome all odds, to not bow down to the idol called haman, and to choose Hashem at a pivotal point in our history.
We could have easily chosen to become like all other Persians, G-D forbid. Rather, we chose the Torah. We did not choose the Torah when we had our temple or when we were in our land. Rather, we chose it when we were exiled, when we hit rock bottom.
Our sages tell us that at Mt. Sinai, our nation was forced to choose the Torah. Perhaps this was done so that on Purim we had the free will to choose the Torah! As the Midrash says, Hashem lifted Mt. Sinai above our heads forcing us to accept the Torah. No, there was no free will on our part because Hashem wanted to show that the Torah is as much a part of the Jew as breath is a part of life. If we didn’t accept the Torah, we might as well have not existed. In fact, the world might as well not exist, as the world exists for the sake of the Jewish people fulfilling Hashem’s Torah. Essentially, the suppression of our free will in choosing the Torah at Mt. Sinai gave us free will forever after.
Hashem made the human soul such that it yearns for a genuine relationship with its Maker. When the soul is suppressed from the ability to choose Hashem, it sinks into despair. However, how could one choose when they do not know the truth? If one does not know the truth, all their days they will know no rest. Thus, Hashem had to annul our free will at Mt. Sinai; then we could forever after have the opportunity to choose emet (truth), Hashem’s Torah; the true joy in life.
The comfort that one reaches when one knows that Hashem orchestrates all that happens, that His Torah is perfect and true, and that when we fulfill His will, our life will be wholesome and good, is like the comfort of a child who believes that their parents are capable of anything. A child has absolute, unwavering trust in their parents; in fact, they do not even think about their trust; it is intuitive and innate. This is the trust and faith that we must all aspire to when serving Hashem. It brings not only true satisfaction, but it also opens our eyes to Hashem’s hand in our life. Ultimately, it brings us to an ever-closer appreciation of how beautiful, wise, and true His Torah is.
Thus, joy comes from shalom (peace), and peace comes from shalem (wholeness, or completeness). When one aspires to live by Hashem’s Torah by studying it, by learning from our scholars, and by bending our will to His will, we gain an understanding of the proper placement of Hashem’s will: how and when to express concepts like chessed vs. gevurah, peace vs. truth, etc. When we strive towards a life of shalem (completeness) one comes closer to Hashem, which in turn fills us with satisfaction, content, faith, and joy. At times, this joy may be expressed through elation, and other times, through an even keeled content. Either way, the individual’s soul becomes refined; one comes to understand that they are living out a truth that goes far beyond their physical existence; they are completing the will of the Creator of the universe, thus making themselves a vessel for His will to flow through, and as a result bringing creation ever closer to its Creator.