Chapter 1: Understanding, the
Core of Joy
Simchah , joy, is one of the most essential elements
of the chassidic way of life. Indeed, in the early stages of the
Chassidic movement, before the name chassidim was coined, one of
the temporary names used to refer to chassidim was di freilicha,
meaning, “the happy ones.” How could you define and
identify a chassid ? By seeing if he was b’simchah —
happy and joyous.
The Rebbeim, the leaders of the Chassidic movement,
would always emphasize the importance of happiness and would urge
their followers to strive to eradicate all traces of sadness and
depression. R. Shlomo of Karlin would say that depression is considered
the threshold of all evil. On another occasion, R. Shlomo said that
although the 365 negative commandments do not include a commandment
not to be depressed, the damage that sadness and depression can
cause is worse than the damage that any sin can cause.
The Baal Shem Tov1 would say that there are times,
when the yetzer hora (the evil inclination) tries to persuade a
person to commit a sin, that it does not care whether or not the
person will actually sin. What it wants is that after sinning, the
person will become depressed and overcome with sadness. In other
words, the depression that follows the sin can cause more spiritual
damage than the actual sin itself.
The Chassidic emphasis on joy has its roots in
the teachings of the Kabbalah. In that vein, the AriZal (see glossary)
notes that the Torah2 tells us that several harsh punishments will
come “because you did not serve G-d with happiness and a glad
heart.” Other commentaries3 explain that the intent of the
verse is that the punishments will come because the people did not
serve G-d in a time of pleasantness and joy. The AriZal explains,4
however, that the verse should be understood simply. What is the
reason for the punishments that will befall our people? Their Divine
service lacked simchah ; they lacked the vitality, energy, and connection
to G-d that joy contributes to Divine service.
When a person is depressed or sad, his energy is
drained; he becomes weak and it is possible that his evil inclination
will overpower him. By analogy: If two people are wrestling each
other, and one of them is stronger, he will be able to overpower
the weaker one. If, however, the stronger person is depressed and
lacks vitality, and the weaker person is full of energy, the weaker
person will be able to overcome the stronger person.5
To refer back to the analogy: When a person is
happy and full of energy, he can overcome his evil inclination.
But even if he is spiritually strong, when a person is sad and his
energy is drained, his yetzer hora can easily overcome him.
One might ask: Why are such teachings identified
with Chassidic thought? Seemingly, these concepts would be accepted
by people from all sectors of Jewish thought. Indeed, if they were
extended slightly, they could be understood and accepted by secular
thinkers as well. So why are they identified with Chassidism?
The answer6 is that the theoretical basis that
enables a person to translate these ideals from the abstract into
the actual is inherent to Chassidism. Chassidism teaches that the
vitality, and indeed the entire existence, of the world depends
totally upon G-d. Every element of creation is one with G-d. Without
this Divine energy, nothing could exist.
This leads to the appreciation of hashgachah pratis
, Divine Providence. Everything that transpires, not only what happens
to people, but also everything that happens to inanimate objects,
comes as a direct result of G-d’s will. Not only does every
entity in the world exist by virtue of G-d’s life-force; every
event that occurs in the world takes place because G-d causes it
The awareness of these concepts leads directly
to simchah. For a person who is aware that everything that happens
to him is controlled by G-d will surely be happy. Indeed, when a
person lacks such happiness, he is implying, Heaven forbid, that
what is happening is not connected to G-d, or that G-d is causing
it to happen, but that, Heaven forbid, G-d is not good.
This is a direct denial of G-d. If one believes
that G-d is responsible for everything that happens, and believes
that G-d is good, then naturally everything that happens is good.
If a person got up and made a declaration that
everything that happens does not come from G-d, he would be denying
G-d’s oneness. Even when one refrains from making such statements,
but acts in a way that implies so — for example, if he is
sad — the implication is the same.
Indeed, actions speak louder than words. So by
being sad, a person is denying the oneness of G-d. He is denying
the fact that everything in the world is constantly connected to
G-d, and everything that happens is controlled by Divine Providence.
This is why Chassidism , which stresses so clearly
and so powerfully the connection between the creation and G-d, places
such an emphasis on simchah. In addition to the contribution of
simchah to our Divine service — for as above, when a person
is sad, he becomes weak and vulnerable, and his evil inclination
can overpower him — something far larger than one’s
individual self is involved. Happiness and its opposite depend on
whether or not one is aware of G-d’s oneness and His constant
In this context, we can understand a unique concept
taught by our Sages. Our Sages state8 that a person who loses his
temper is considered as if he worshipped idols. What is the connection
between losing one’s temper and idol worship?
Losing one’s temper is obviously undesirable.
It reflects a lack of self-control; it is socially unacceptable;
but how is it connected to idol worship? The answer is that when
a person loses his temper, he, in essence, is denying that what
has occurred is coming from G-d. If he believed that everything
that happens comes from G-d, that G-d is good and whatever G-d does
is good, there is no room for losing one’s temper, just as
there is no room for depression and sadness.
A person once came to R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of
Mezeritch, and asked him, “Rebbe, our Sages tell us that we
must bless G-d when something good happens, and in the same way,
we should bless G-d when something negative happens.9 How can this
The Maggid of Mezeritch told him, “Go to
my student, R. Zushya. He will explain it to you.”
When he found R. Zushya, by looking at his face
and his clothing he could easily see that he had not had much to
eat, and that he did not have the money to buy decent clothing.
Everything about him bespoke privation, but his face radiated happiness.
“This is surely a person who can answer my question,”
he said to himself.
So he told R. Zushya that the Maggid had sent him
to him to explain how a person could bless G-d in the face of adversity.
R. Zushya looked at him in puzzlement. “I
do not know how to answer this question,” he replied. “This
question should be answered by someone who has suffered. I have
never experienced suffering in my life.”
R. Zushya was telling him that everything that
happens comes from G-d and is controlled by Divine Providence. He
knew clearly that G-d is completely good. Therefore, it was as clear
as day to him that everything that happens is good. And so, R. Zushya
never experienced any suffering in his life.
1. Tzavos HaRivosh, ch. 44.
2. Deuteronomy 28:47.
3. Rashi, loc. cit.
4. See Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, p. 552.
5. See Tanya, Chapter 26.
6. See Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 11.
7. See the essay entitled Master Plan: The Baal Shem Tov’s
Unique Conception of Divine Providence (Sichos In English, 5752).
8. Zohar, Vol. I, p. 27b, Mishneh Torah, Hilchos De’os 2:3;
cf. Nedarim 22b. See also Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Epistle 25.
9. Berachos 54a.