Tapping the power of Simcha
Rabbi Yisroel Greenwald

The fly and the fighter jet

Two fighter jets roar overhead in mortal combat for aerial supremacy. Their thick exhaust paints the sky in a childish scrawl, while the ground below reverberates violently, as if shivering in fright. Suddenly, the thundering drone of the jets is replaced by a deafening explosion: the dogfight is over, and moments later a lone jet disappears into the horizon. Quiet is restored in the meadow. The only sound now is that of another air battle transpiring several feet above the ground. Two flies are engaged in mortal combat, their wings buzzing angrily as they impact each other with all their might.

The intense struggle between two jets and two flies are proportionally equal; but they are two totally different wars. So too, says the Chazon Ish, comparing the respective capacities of different people is sometimes the equivalent of comparing flies to planes and tanks.1 Have you ever noticed how some people stand out in a crowd? They actually seem "large": not in the physical sense, but in that they appear to possess greater abilities and potential than others. Apart from natural talents, is there any quality that can help one's own personality blossom into something "bigger"? Is there something that can enable someone to transform him or herself from resembling a humble housefly, into something closer to a fighter jet?

At least one such trait that will maximise one's potential for success is joy. Rabbi S. R. Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for joy, simcha, is related to the word tzameach, growth. Joy makes one richer, fuller, and "bigger"; simply put, joy increases one's ability to accomplish greatness.2 The person who wakes up feeling miserable is productivity challenged: just getting out of bed is not just a big deal, but an ordeal. If the next day he wakes up uplifted, his field of activity also expands; as we find our hypothetical friend jumping quickly out of bed, ready to take on the world. As the Zohar explains, our drive to accomplish, both for good and evil, grows only through simcha.3

And, on a cosmic level, being joyful also sets into motion parallel spiritual forces. Indeed, our attitudes effect hidden forces that can change our lives. This is how the Midrash expounds the verse, Hashem tzilcha, "Hashem is your shade."4 Just as your shadow follows your every move in perfect mimicry, so does Hashem reciprocate your every action and emotion.5 The Zohar applies this lesson specifically to joy, and its opposite, despair:6

As is the arousal from below, so too is the arousal from above. If one's face beams radiantly below, so too, a radiant light is aroused for him from above. And if he stands depressed7, they correspondingly give him strict justice.

Bearing this teaching from the Zohar in mind, consider, this remarkable statement from Rabbi Simcha Bunim from Parshishcha: "The kalim, the light headed ones, have an enjoyable life in this world. They are always happy! Even though their levity is in frivolities and foolishness, [my emphasis], nevertheless, the trait of joy - whose Divine source is chessed, kindness - draws kindness and blessing upon them. But those [negatively inclined] G-d fearing Jews, who are mostly worried and sad - even though their worries are regarding Divine service (again my emphasis) - nevertheless, they draw upon themselves the Divine attribute of strict justice, G-d forbid, and therefore they lack sustenance."8


The flow of blessings, we are taught, which come in the wake of joy are far reaching and numerous. Success in one's livelihood,9 redemption,10 ability to bear children,11 health and recovery from illness,12 Torah knowledge,13 shidduchim,14 and childrearing,15 are all engendered and augmented through happiness. In addition to generating blessing, joy fashions its bearer into a receptacle capable of receiving blessing. As a mekubal once said, "Heaven wants to give; you just need to become a vessel to be able to receive the blessing."16 Simcha creates that vessel.

An older depressed single man came to the Baba Sali for a blessing. The Baba Sali instructed his shamash to bring some spirits and offer him a l'chaim. The chacham explained that the blessing for his salvation needed to be chal mitoch simcha, activated through joy.

The Tanker Rebbe zt'l was wont to say, "one simcha leads to another." This positive spiralling effect of simcha, sets off unusually successful patterns for those who incorporate this quality into their lives.

Rabbi Shmuel Myski zt'l ran the largest free loan society in the world lending over ten million dollars a year. People regularly lent him sixty or seventy thousand dollars for his gemach on his promise that their money would always be available to them on two day's notice. Not once did he fail to make good on that promise.

There were times he began the day with two hundred thousand dollars in loans from banks and private individuals that had to be paid back. Invariably, someone would approach him after his morning minyan and tell him that he had seventy thousand dollars that he did not need for the time being. "If I begin the day happy," he used to say, "then I know I will have siyata d'shmaya." Sometimes it took dozens of phone calls to raise the entire sum needed, but in the end, it was always done.17

An eyewitness related to me the following story:

I once came to the home of my rebbi, Rabbi Dan Segal shlita, on erev Pesach. Due to extenuating circumstances, Rav Dan and his family had just returned to their home in Israel, and had absolutely no provisions for Pesach. Other family members were frantic about being able to produce even the basic yom tov needs. Rav Dan turned calmly to his visitor and asked, "Nu, what does Hashem want me to do now?" He immediately answered his own rhetorical question: "To be b'simcha." He then began to sing a joyous melody which bespoke his trust and love for Hashem.

After he finished singing, there was a knock on the door. A person came in and said that he heard that the rav was returning home, so he had purchased him some meat prepared according to the special shechita he used. A few minutes later another person walked in and brought eggs, then another wine, and so forth. Although each person acted independently, unaware of what the others had brought, he soon acquired all his Pesach needs.

The Mitzva of mundane joy

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov famously said, Mitzva gedola lihiyos besimcha tamid, "It is a great mitzva to always be joyous constantly."18 Now, if you were to open up one of the various Halachic authorities that compiled precise lists of the 613 mitzvos, this one would not appear there. Reb Ahron Karliner explained that while attaining joy is not listed among the 613 commandments, its meritorious value is that it leads a person to fulfilling all the mitzvos.19 It is therefore not surprising that some consider acquiring simcha as the single most important character trait that one should strive to attain.20 The chassidic movement, in particular, placed much emphasis in this specific area of Divine service.21

A group of chasidim sent a delegation to the Rizhiner Rebbe for guidance in service of Hashem. The Rizhiner replied, "They should be joyous even sh'lo lishma, not for the sake of heaven. For joy not for the sake of heaven eventually leads to joy for the sake of heaven."22

* * *

Rabbi Ahrala from Vitebesk once attended a wedding and broke into tears when hearing the musician play. After the wedding the Rebbe called over the musician and told him, "The melody of the violin bespeaks all the sins of its player." The musician began to cry inconsolably and admitted to transgressing many sins.

Rabbi Ahrala told him that his remedy is that he should see to it that he is always joyous. And no matter what happens, he should not allow any disturbing thoughts bother him. The Rebbe assured him that if he would put all his efforts in this area, he would be saved from sin. The musician followed the Rebbe's advice and for many years guarded himself from depression and was spared from sin. Until once, however, when he quarrelled with his wife and became depressed, he immediately fell again into sin.23

What is perhaps less well known, however, is the paramount importance attached to obtaining happiness in the ethical thought of the traditional Lithuanian yeshiva world as well. The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yosef Bloch, quotes a saying of chazal that if a person stops learning unnecessarily it is as if he worshipped idols. Rabbi Bloch asked, how do we define "necessary"? One might think that it means going to sleep, or eating a meal, since those things are necessary to learn. No, he said. "Necessity" is everything that is necessary for a person to feel happy, strong, self-confident, optimistic, joyful, and growth-oriented. Whatever it takes to enable a person to stride with steps of confidence and strength, all falls into the category of "necessary" and is a justified cessation of Torah studies. This includes, for example, enjoying the beauties of nature, going for a stroll, relaxed social interaction and so on.

Then Rabbi Bloch takes objection to his own conclusion: Shouldn't we take inspiration from those outstanding Jews who did not live that way? The Gaon of Vilna would learn for eighteen hours a day! He didn't take time out go strolling in the woods or to enjoy physical pleasures! Shouldn't we take people like that as our inspiration and try to imitate them? No, he answers, this would be a great mistake. For the Vilna Gaon his greatest joy and pleasure was Torah study. We, however, who have not reached his lofty level, need (permitted) physical pleasures to provide us with satisfaction. Since our temptations were not his temptations, his battle was not our battle; and we therefore cannot use him as an inspiration in that respect.

The Telzer Rosh Yeshiva ends by echoing the sentiment of Reb Aharon Karliner. If one asks, If being happy is not explicitly listed as one of the 613 mitzvos, why is it necessary to be happy? He answers that if ones needs are not met, you cannot serve Hashem the way He wishes to be served. Hashem wants high quality service, using all your talents, abilities, and energies. If you are anxious, nervous, and lack self-confidence - in short, if you do not experience joy and happiness - you will not serve Hashem that way. Investing in a positive emotional set is investing in the quality of service I can offer to Hashem.24

10 Ways to Attain Simcha

1. Trust in Hashem

One who trusts in Hashem is always happy.25 Reb Chazkel Levenstein zt'l, was well-known for his high level of emuna and bitochon. Although he had an extremely difficult life, he confided to his students, "Believe me, I don't know the meaning of sadness."

Someone asked a poor but happy man for his secret for happiness. He replied that he has two keys that opened treasure stores of happiness and wealth for him. After asking the poor man to show him the two keys, he replied, "My two keys are: Key vo yismach libeinu, key vesheim kadsho batachnu - 'For in Him our hearts will rejoice; for in His Holy Name we trusted.'"26

2. Experience beauty

Strolling in beautiful gardens, looking at pleasing works of architecture, and being surrounded by beautiful objects, alleviate depression and expand one's mind.27 Before the Rabbeinu Tam delved into a complicated Torah subject, he would place before him a pile of gold coins to achieve this state of mental expansion.28

3. Take care of your appearance

There is a tendency of one who is depressed to allow his physical appearance to deteriorate. Being well dressed and groomed, on the other hand, helps uplift one's low spirits.

Some derive this lesson from the behaviour of Yosef. When Yosef was alone in prison, he devised a strategy to prevent himself from falling into depression. He succeeded in distracting himself from his worries, and from his pain of being away from home. He ate and drank well, and groomed himself, in order to be in a happy frame of mind.29

4. Act positive

A fundamental principle in Judaism is that, 'motions affect emotions.' When acting happy, one eventually becomes happy. If one walks buoyantly, sings happy tunes, and speaks to friends with a smile, even if at first one does not notice a change, the external persona eventually penetrates.30

5. Find a positive environment

An effortless way to absorb the benefits of positive atmosphere is to enter the company of people who possess joy. Their positive energy rubs off. Even merely reading uplifting books, (for example, those discussing the quality of joy) also leaves an impression.31

6. Enjoy life (in moderation)

The Torah recognizes that a certain measure of physical pleasure is necessary to maintain happiness.32 What constitutes an enjoyable activity may vary from person to person.33 Exercise and sports may make one person happy; 34 for another it may be a leisurely walk; for a third it may be listening to music.35 One who indulges in physical pleasures in order to be strong and healthy to serve Hashem, has an equal reward to one who fasts and deprives himself from worldly pleasures for the same end.36

7. Live wisely

Much suffering is a result of man's own foolishness, and well within his own ability to prevent.37 As Rabbi Avigdor Miller once said, "Those who carry an umbrella are able to sing in the rain."

8. Work

After Yehuda lost his wife, he immersed himself in his work, shearing his flocks. Being involved in work thus helped him forget his worries.38 Idleness leads to depression.39 One should therefore fill his day with constructive activity, such as Torah study or an occupation.40.

The author spoke to a senior Rosh Yeshiva, whose philosophy was to discourage his students from attending college. I asked him if a person feels he is not succeeding in his Torah studies and is depressed, should he go to work? The Rosh yeshiva replied, "Certainly. Depression is an illness, and if working will give him the satisfaction he lacks in Torah, then that is for him the proper path to follow."

9. Meditate

When Moshe informed the persecuted Jewish nation that their redemption was at hand, they would not listen to him because of their kotzer ruach, their shortness of breath.41 As Rashi explains, when someone is in a distressed state he is short of breath and cannot draw long breaths. The Hebrew word for pain, tza'ar, literally means, "confined." When in pain, a person's body is tense and constricted, which manifests itself in shortness of breath. By the same token, tza'ar also constricts the mind and prevents it from accepting comfort. When one's mind is constricted (which is referred to as katnus hamochin) not only does one not notice the beautiful grass and sky, but his mind is blocked from accepting any happy thoughts and perceptions.

Just as a distressed state results shortness of breath, one can also shift the body's gear back into a relaxed state through proper breathing techniques. Deep breathing exercises help one relax, and open the mind. This allows one to adopt a state conducive to internalising comfort, tranquillity, and the acceptance of positive thoughts.42

It is also useful to use visualisation in conjunction with meditation. We find in Tehillim that David made use of visualisation techniques. As Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains: At early dawn David prayed to Hashem in anticipation of the dawning of a new day in history. The time of the day at which he prayed called to his soul the thought of that dawn of a new morning in the history of mankind. David pictured this future era to himself and awaited it.43 David would also make use of internal visualisation when meditating upon the return of the captives of Zion. Not only did he await the redemption, but he would vividly imagine the exact roads travelled and picture in his mind the familiar trees one passes on the return home.44

10. Transcend discomfort

The perception of pain is, to some extent, subjective. The overly sensitive lead an impoverished existence of perpetual irritation,45 while those who are oblivious to those same slights and discomforts live both happier and longer.46

In Novardok, yeshiva students participated in deliberately humiliating behaviour, such as going to the bakery and asking for a box of nails, or wearing a tie made out of hay.47 A student of Novardok related to the author that the purpose of these exercises were not to "put yourself down," as is commonly thought by outsiders. The training, in fact, promoted the opposite; it gave the students the emotional freedom from the bogeyman of public approval. They discovered that the fear of embarrassment was actually much greater than the reality. This strengthened their confidence to do the right thing, oblivious to what others might think. The bravery and courage of the Novardok students was evident by their legendary ability to start yeshivas despite the risk of imprisonment by the Russian authorities.

In another approach to forging strength of character, the Novardok philosophy saw army service in a different light to other yeshivos. While all other yeshivos in Poland gave their army aged students permission to transfer to yeshivas in neighbouring countries, the administration of the Novardok yeshiva saw the year and a half of required army service amongst Gentiles as beneficial in helping to produce a physically stronger and more mature student. The experience could enhance his spiritual growth, and his ability to be of service of his community, which was a central part of the Novardok philosophy.48

Paradoxically, the path to transcending discomfort requires experiencing it. We derive this principle from the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Torah is a precise discipline, which requires the utmost peace of mind to properly study. We would therefore expect that it be given to the Jews only after they were comfortably settled in the land of Israel. But, of course, we find on the contrary. The Torah was given in the bleak stark desert, and only after the Jews had experienced both hunger and wanderings.

Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz explains that although the Torah certainly requires extreme clarity and calmness, the mistaken assumption most people commonly share is that the way to attain calmness is by having all of one's physical desires fulfilled. In reality, the opposite is true. If one is accustomed to comfort, then the moment he lacks one of its components, he finds himself unhappy. Says Reb Yerucham, true calm derives from being exposed to deprivation and discomfort, while still remaining strong and in control.49

I once asked Rav Dan Segal shlita why so little written was about Yitzchak in the Torah compared to the other Avos. He answered that he once met a Holocaust survivor who was always joyous. Rav Dan asked him, "How are you able to be so happy even though you have been confronted with such harsh challenges?"

The old man replied, "I survived the Holocaust. After that, nothing bothers me any more." Similarly explained Rav Dan, Yitzchak was willing to sacrifice his life as an offering to Hashem. After such a powerful experience, his whole life transcended normal human existence. So elevated was he from this world, little of his life is recorded for posterity.

We can add, perhaps, that it was no coincidence that Yitzchak's life derives from the word, tzchok: laughter. One who transcends suffering, finds his entire life becomes filled with joyous laughter.


1 20 Years Beside the Chazon Ish, p. 195-197
2 Thus, when the sages said "whoever is 'bigger' than his friend, has a bigger inclination than him (Sukka 52a)," it can be dealing with such a person endowed with greater abilities, which includes a great emotional capacity and increased level of energy and vitality.
3 Quoted in the introduction to Iglei Tal. See also Chizkuni, Breishis 38:13.
4 Tehillim 121:5
5 Midrash ibid.
6 Tetzaveh 184b.
7 The use of the word "depressed" in this article does not refer to the state of grief following bereavement or to the medical condition of clinical depression. Clinical depression may, in many cases, have a biochemical basis and requires professional attention. One need not feel religious guilt for experiencing clinical depression any more than one would feel guilt about having any other medical condition such a high blood pressure or diabetes.
8 Siach Sarfai Kodesh, simcha 4.
9 Toras Avos. This is hinted to in the verse (Devarim 33:18), 'Semach zevulun b'tzasecha" - "Rejoice, Zevulun, when you go out [to earn your livlihood]."
10 This is alluded to in verse regarding the future redemption (Yeshaya 55:12), 'Ki vesimcha saytzayu' - with joy one one can get out of all difficulties.
11 The daughter of Rabbi Shmuel Kamrena travelled to the well known tzadik, Rabbi Rafael from Bershid for a blessing for children. Rabbi Rafael told her, "A segula for children is joy."
12 The Gra on Mishlei 18:14.
13 "If a person learns with joy, then the words of Torah get absorbed in his blood." (Iglai Tal).
14 Rebbitzin H. Goldwurm, a successful and caring shadchan, relates once taking a thirty five year old single woman to the Sklulener rebbe for a blessing to find a suitable shidduch. The rebbe told her to work for three months on bitochon and simcha. She did, and three months later she became a kallah.
15 The author was present when Rabbi Avrohom Pam zt'l gave a blessing to a pregnant woman. He blessed her that she should be happy and through her happiness she would be able to produce and raise happy children.
16 Shir Hashirim 8:9.
17 Related in the Jewish Observer.
18 From Likkutei Maharan, Tenina, 24. The conclusion of the statement is, "..and [it is a great mitzvah] to push away with all one's might any thoughts of sadness and depression." 19 Letter from Rabbi Ahron Karliner. Conversely, he concludes, "Although depression itself is not a sin, it leads a person to all the sins of the world."
20 Bais Ahron, simchas Beis Hashoava, Degel Machne Efraim, Vayichi and others.
21 The author is indebted to the excellent work, B'simcha Tamid, from which numerous sources based on chasidic literature were derived.
22 Ner Yisroel, 2:190. Obviously this pertains to maintaining healthy joy, but not excessive levity of the nature that leads to sin.
23 Toras Avos, Simcha 6.
24 Shiura Da'as, Vol. 2, chap. 9. For further elaboration on this subject one is referred to Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb's beautiful exposition, Torah Recognizes Psychological Needs (Voices from Jerusalem audio library).
25 Chovos Halevovos, sha'ar habitochon.
26 Tehillim, 33:21.
27 Rambam in Shemona Perokim, chap. 5. The Chuster rav, Rabbi Yehoshua Greenwald zt'l, made use of this method after surviving the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. He devoted significant time to touring and visited the great works of architecture and world famous museums in Europe (Ayin Dimah p. 13).
28 Maharil, quoted in Tzidkas Hatzadik, 220.
29 Meor Veshemesh, Vayeshev. The sages faulted Yosef for his behavior, for not taking into consideration that he may attract the attention of members of the opposite gender, whose presence he was in.
30 Shomer Emunim, Tzahli Veroni, 9.
31 ibid.
32 There is an obligation to be happy on Yom Tov. The Gemara Pesachim 109a states that this state is achieved through physical enjoyment.
33 Pesachim (ibid.) states that the method of achieving simcha varies according to each segment of the population. (The examples given there are not exhaustive; the Sefer Yeraim says that for some, the mitzva of simchas Yom Tov includes going on trips, etc.)
When Rabbi Ahron Kotler zt'l wished to revive the broken spirits of a holocaust survivor, he asked him what he enjoyed doing. The man replied that he enjoyed the game of chess. Reb Ahron said, "Let's see who can play chess better," and played chess with him on a regular basis. During the game Reb Ahron would speak to him comforting words, until he lifted the man out of his depression.
34 The Rambam in Pirkei Moshe writes that exercise alleviates depression and gladdens a person.
35 Abarbanel, Melachim 2, 3:15, Rambam, Yesodai Hatorah 7:4. Rabbi Asher Zimmerman zt'l related to the author that Rabbi Shimon Shkop zt'l would listen to classical music for relaxation.
36 Rambam, quoted in Taz, Even Ezra (25:1).
37 Mishlei 19:3, Kesuvos 30a - "Everything is in the hand of heaven except for colds and heatstroke."
38 Ramban, Bereishis 38:12.
39 Kesuvos, 49b.
40 Noam Eliezer, Tehillim 149:2. This he says is hinted to in the verse, Yismach Yisroel b'osov - an aid for a Jew to be joyous is to be involved in some sort of activity.
41 Shmos 6:9.
42 A cryptic statement from the Zevila Rebbe possibly sheds light on the subject. He said, "If you watch an in breath, the out breath will be pure."
43 Hirsch Tehillim, 5:4.
44 Commentary of Malbim, Tehillim 84:6-7.
45 Sanhedrin 100b.
46 Sanhedrin 7a. For a full treatment of this subject, one is reffered to Rabbi Avigdor Miller's zt'l wonderful tape, Happy Is He Who Ignores.
47 For a more contemporary example, Rabbi Yehudah Mandel went to France to visit the Novardik rosh yeshiva, R. Gershon Liebman. Sitting next to the rosh yeshiva, he saw him take a handful of cornflakes and put it in his cup of coffee. When Reb Gershon noticed Rabbi Mandel's startled look, he scooped another handful of cornflakes, and, moving towards his guest's cup of coffee, asked, "Would you like some too?"
48 Personal Miracles: The Guiding Hand of Providence, by Rabbi Grainom Lazewnik, pp. 12-13.
49 Da'as Torah, Vol.1, pp. 279-281. Reb Yeruchem illustrates this point with an analogy of a solider's experience in basic training. The most important requirement for a soldier in battle is to possess calmness and control in the face of chaos and life-threatening danger. The training camp which produces this type of soldier is not one which provides the soldier pleasures and comforts. To the contrary, army training, whose aim is to produce soldiers who will be strong under even the most torturous conditions, put soldiers to the extremes of human endurance, such as sleep deprivation, combined with harsh physical exertions. This training gives the solder the ability to be calm in battle and totally focused on his goal of protecting his homeland.

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