What is joy?
What is joy?

Joy! Sounds like a simple term. Perhaps one may think it is connected to happiness, but a more ecstatic form of it. Are we to be happy, no matter what? What if I have to pay taxes, or my bills are skyrocketing? What if I am on lockdown for weeks. Am I to approach all this with joy? 

Seems to be so. In fact, Hashem says something interesting in the Torah: "Since you did not serve G-d your G-d with joy and with gladness of heart ...you will serve your enemies" (Deut. 28:47). Seems a little harsh. If we aren’t joyous, then Hashem will allow our enemies to do with us as they wish. Is that what is meant to be understood from this?

Yes, but perhaps it is not so farfetched. Who is our true enemy? Our yetzer hara, our evil inclination. The other nations that inhabited the land of Israel worshipped the yetzer hara. They had no morality; they did as they wished. They sent their children through fire, slept with whom they liked, and worshipped idols. 

What’s joy got to do with it? Our sages explain that the biggest aveirah (transgression) is not an actual sin. It’s a general state of unhappiness. I know, it sounds impossible to outlaw a state of mind and none of us is immune to taking things hard. So, it’s important to understand that such hardships may be “natural” (we are not talking about clinical depression, of course) but  not meant to be normalized or meant to make one comfortable to dwell on. Being unhappy leads us to do worse things than we can ever imagine. We become careless, we become self-absorbed, and ultimately, we lose a sense of responsibility, truth, and meaning.

When we do not serve Hashem with joy, something else must creep in, and this leaves room for the yetzer hara to grip one by the throat. 

So if the solution is joy, what does it mean to be joyful? Joy has been misunderstood the same way the word “love” has. Love is not an emotion or a feeling, it is the result of hard work put into the relationship with one’s spouse. Joy, too, is not an emotion. It is the result of an input. In order to really understand what this input is, I will withhold it for a little bit as we investigate together. 

If you receive a raise at work you feel an emotion, happiness. If a little child receives chocolate, they too will be happy (by the way, I will also be happy). Is happiness joy? I strongly believe not. Happiness is logical, it is connected to some “thing.” If one’s happiness comes from a “thing,” can he truly be happy? 

Let’s pick a “thing” to analyze. Money, for example. Someone might say that money brings happiness. Every time they invest money in the stock market or make a new business decision that brings them more cash, they become happy. Is it true? Most certainly not. Not in the case that the money is used for the means of making more money. “He who loves silver is not satisfied by silver” (Kohelet 5:9). 

When we attach ourselves to “things” like money, we will never be at peace because there is always more to have. They will fall into depression, lack of meaning, and they will serve their enemies; in this case, money. Since “happiness” by this definition is simply an emotion which comes and goes, and is strongly attached to “things,” is joy just another word for happiness? Are we all just living in a meaningless world?

King David wrote, “If God does not build a home, then those who build it, work for naught.” (Tehillim 127:1). What does this mean? It means that nothing comes into fruition without Hashem’s blessing. If we leave Hashem in the shul, when we push Him away, we are left with this world’s “natural” laws (cutthroat competition, lack of regard for other people, etc.). This lack of Hashem leaves us and all our efforts at the mercy of “nature.”

Now that we are at home and unable to go to shul, we can see it even more clearly. To achieve satisfaction, one must cleave to Hashem and His Torah. He spells out very clearly how He wants us to approach life. When we lets go of attachment to things and cleave to Hashem, the Infinite, we are no longer at war with ourselves. Attaching oneself to the Infinite gives one much more satisfaction than something finite. The finite creates an illusion that it is infinite and that we need more and more of it. We do not need more money for the sake of money, we do not need to lie for the sake of upholding a certain image, and we do not need the newest edition of the gadget that everyone is going crazy over. 

When we realize everything we have received is from Hashem, we understand we have received the greatest gift, for this gift has come from the Master of this world. It does not mean He does not want us to pray for more, for more sustenance, more faith, more peace. It means that whatever it is that we received is from Him. We no longer feel an urge to take that which is not ours, that which is not earned by our efforts and rewarded to us by Hashem. 

“When you shall eat from the efforts of your hands…you shall be happy…for you will be content with your portion, and you will not covet or chase the wealth of others…Rather you will live your own life, according to the blessings bestowed upon you.” (Kitov, A Jewish Home: A Guide to Jewish Family Life, 162). Hashem grants us rewards for the work of our hands  both spiritually and physically, and sometimes gives a little more than we merited. Once one realizes he has received exactly what Hashem intends him to receive, and it is straight from Him, he will be at peace.

Back to the example of money. It is easy to worship one’s money. This leads to wanting other’s money, cheating people to have more, and then again being dissatisfied with what one has. It is like a drug addiction, a vicious cycle. However, it does not need to be this way. If we know our wellbeing and sustenance comes from an Infinite source, then we should use the money in a holy, dignified manner. For instance, if you are making money in order to create a home, to provide for your family, to bring a smile to your wife’s face, to raise your children, to give charity, etc. then you are using the money to attach yourself to something infinite. Using money to do these things far outlives you; it is the mark that you brand into this entire world that the Holy One created.

So, what does all is this have to do with joy? We know this world is closely guided by Hashem and everything we receive is carefully calculated by the Master of the universe. When we truly understand this, we develop faith that Hashem has everything under control. 

Have you ever seen or heard of someone losing his possessions and acting happy, ecstatic, in fact, joyous? It is easy to write him off as crazy, but I say take a deeper look. This crazy person understands that whatever it is that he has left, a life, eyesight, breathe, taste, etc., is all there, and it all comes from a higher source. He becomes deeply connected to the fact that everything given can be taken away in an instant, and whatever he does have is given to him each moment.

Remember the missing input? Faith is the missing input. Joy is the epitome of faith. When one has true faith that everything that has happened, is happening, and will happen comes from Hashem, one feels security even in the seemingly most insecure situations. Joy is not an emotion; it is an outlook on life. It is the ability to recognize that every single thing that happens is orchestrated by the Almighty. 

It is easy to see why we fell before our enemies when we did not serve Hashem with joy. We did not have faith that Hashem was in control.

But He is in control during the hard times, the testing times, and the nerve-wracking, anxiety-inducing times. May we all remind ourselves that although we do not always see Hashem’s hand in the moment, we must not fall in spirits.

Joy is beyond reason; it does not depend on any “thing.” You can have every “thing” in the world and be depressed (look at Hollywood actors). On the contrary, let us have faith, let us have joy, and let us cleave to Hashem and His Torah. Let us know Hashem is right here with us, feeding us, giving us everything we need and merit, and usually a little more.