The hasidic movement emphasizes the mitzvah of happiness more than any other in Judaism.
By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel
This week’s Torah portion is “Ki Tavo” (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8), and in it we read about the importance of happiness. Being happy in general, and in the course of observing the Torah in particular, are very important concepts in Judaism.
Take, for example, these Scriptural passages: “All these curses will befall you, pursuing you and overtaking you to destroy you because you did not obey the Lord…. Because you did not serve God, your God, with joy and gladness of the heart” (Deuteronomy 28:45, 28:47) and “Serve God with gladness and come before Him with joyful song” (Psalms 100:2). There are many more as well!
Readers may be aware that the Eskimos have dozens of words to describe snow. Yes, snow. They have words for wet snow, dry snow, snowflake shapes, heavy snow falls, light snowfalls and more. This is because snow is a major part of their lives up there in Northern Canada! So it is with happiness in Judaism. We have many words to describe being happy. For example: simcha (general happiness or celebration), osher (longlasting happiness), gila (an outburst of joy); ditza (a sublime joy); tzahala (happiness that leads to dancing), and more.
We are not allowed to pray when feeling down or depressed…only when happy! So too, the prophets of old were able to receive prophecy only when in a joyous mood, as the Talmud states, “the Divine presence does not rest on a prophet unless he is in a state of happiness” and “the Divine Presence does not rest upon one who is gloomy…only in a state of joy.”
Being happy actually becomes an obligation on many holidays. For example, in order to get into a mood of happiness, we are actually required to buy new clothes for the holiday and to eat meat and wine. This is especially true for Passover, Shavuot, and the most joyous biblical holiday of the year, Sukkot.
The hasidic movement emphasizes happiness more than any other in Judaism. The founder of the hasidic movement, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), was once asked: “Why is it that hasidim always look for excuses for song and dance? Is this normal?” Rabbi Israel responded with the following parable:
A musician once came to town and stood on a street corner and began to play. Passerby loved his music and the crowd grew. After a sort while they even began to dance. A deaf man walking by couldn’t understand why people were dancing [i.e. he couldn’t hear the music!]. Explained Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, “Hasidim are moved to sing and dance by everything in God’s great world. Only those who are “deaf” don’t understand.”
The original name for the hasidic movement was actually “The Freilich”—Yiddish for “The Happy Ones.” From the very inception of hasidism, joy and happiness was the primary feature. Some other hasidic sayings include:
– “Being happy is, for Hassidim, the equivalent of a biblical command”
– “With joy you can bid farewell to all your problems!”
– “Simply knowing that you are a Jew is reason or happiness.”
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov taught that whatever a person does – eating, sleeping, business, and even leisure activities – can all be considered mitzvot (Torah commandments) if they are done with the proper intentions. This was a major difference between the hasidic movement and other streams of Judaism until that point.
Up until then point, only if you were doing actual mitzvot were you considered to be serving God. Hasidism teaches us that everything we do in life is considered to be serving God as long as we think about God and use our work to get closer to Him and help our families. Being happy is a method of serving Him, as well!
For more insights by Rabbi Enkin, click on the links below.
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