Chapter 10: Letting Go
A story1 is told about a king who was once seriously ill. All
the physicians despaired of curing him. One healer offered a remedy:
If the king would put on the shirt of a person who is absolutely
happy, then the king would be healed.
Immediately, riders were dispatched all over the country to look
for a person who is absolutely happy and bring his shirt back
to the king. First they went to the richest person in the country.
They asked him, "Are you happy?"
He answered: "Of course. I am the richest person in the
"But are you absolutely happy?"
He began to hesitate. "Absolute is a difficult term. How
can I be absolutely happy? I always have to protect my position.
Take, for example, the businessman in the north. His concerns
have been thriving and I am worried about the possibility of competition.
And I've had a setback or two recently...."
The messengers left him in the middle of his thoughts. They saw
that despite his wealth he was worried, and he did not know what
true happiness was.
Then they ran to the person who was the country's leading educational
figure. "Are you happy?" they asked him. "Yes,"
he answered. "Absolutely happy?" And there he began
to hem and haw. He told them about his unfulfilled desires and
how he feels threatened by certain people. And they saw that he
also did not know what absolute happiness meant.
And they went from person to person and it was always the same
story. Some people were outwardly happy, and some were inwardly
happy. But no one was absolutely happy. Beneath the surface, everyone
was burdened by various worries, concerns and anxieties.
After this long and unsuccessful journey, they decided it was
time to go back home; they realized that they could not find anyone
who knew what absolute happiness is. On their way home, shortly
before they approached the palace, they heard a joyous melody.
A person was singing freely, and they sensed that he was really
They turned their horses in the direction of the song and they
saw a drunken man, reeling back and forth with a huge smile on
his face. "Are you happy," they asked him. "I am
the happiest person in the world," he answered. "Absolutely
happy?" "Yes. I have not a care on my mind."
And they saw that it was true. He did not worry; he had no anxieties
nor fears. They realized that this was the man they were looking
for. They told him, "Sir, we need your shirt. The king is
sick, but the healer said that if he puts on the shirt of a happy
man, he will be healed. Lend us your shirt for a short while.
We promise that you will be amply rewarded."
The man replied, "I would be happy to help the king, and
I do not need his rewards. But there is one problem. I do not
own a shirt."
The point of the story is: because he does not own a shirt that
is why he is the happiest person in the world.
On the one hand, the story looks good. It tells you that many
of us are so concerned with who we are and what we have that we
can never really let loose and be happy. Our self-concern ties
us down and prevents us from experiencing real happiness.
There is a pithy truth to this message. But beneath the surface,
there is something negative here. This person has nothing, no
purpose, no goal in life, nothing that he is working for, nothing
to look forward to. It is true that he has nothing holding him
back from being happy. But he also has no genuine source of happiness;
his life is empty.
When a person has a goal to achieve be it a self-oriented goal
like making money or a more altruistic goal like teaching or helping
others he will define his happiness in terms of his achievement
of his goal. There are times when he will be successful, and other
times when he will fail. Since life has its ups and downs, he
will never be absolutely happy. Why does the drunkard in our story
think that he is so happy? Because he has absolutely nothing at
all that bothers him. But that is tragic, not happy.
There has never been an animal who has gone to a psychologist
and complained that he feels unfulfilled, that he has not accomplished
enough. An animal does not think like that. Take a dog: he gets
up in the morning, barks a little, rolls around on his back, runs
around, eats some food, goes to sleep, plays, sleeps again, and
gets up for more the next day. This goes on year after year. It
is fine for a dog; his nature does not demand anything more of
him. He will never feel unfulfilled.
A human being, however, is different. He has a brain and a soul,
and unless he taps their potential he will never be satisfied.
The drunk feels happy because he has no shirt, meaning he has
nothing to himself. But this is not real happiness. In Hebrew,
we call this holelus (frivolity), not simchah (joy). It is an
animal form of satisfaction, where the person does not live up
to his potential.
Can we combine simchah and responsibility? Is it possible to
have purpose and direction, and at the same time to let loose
and feel free?
Yes. This is the type of happiness that comes from kabbalas ol,
accepting G-d's yoke. On the one hand, a person lets go of his
self-consciousness, but he does not sink into emptiness; he connects
to a force that is much higher than himself. Both the letting
go and the connection are sources of simchah.
Let us return to the analogy used in the story. Happiness comes
from "not having a shirt of your own"; being able to
rise above one's self-concerns. The question is, however, does
one, like the drunkard, walk around naked i.e., discard one's
human potential? Or does one as does a master of kabbalas ol continue
wearing the shirt, but transfer ownership of it to G-d?
The drunkard's happiness is destructive; it ruins his ability
to build a life for himself and the people close to him. True
joy involves self-transcendence and more than that, the establishment
of a connection to one?s inner G-dly core. This builds personal
strength. A person who experiences real happiness grows and becomes
able to overcome personal limitations that had previously hampered
him. He is open and friendly with others, and imbues them with
joy as well. He radiates trust in G-d and appreciation for all
the good He grants us.
In other words, there is a type of joy that destroys a person,
and there is a type of joy that makes a person even stronger than
he was before. When a person lets go of himself without direction,
it is destructive. Imagine taking your hands off the steering
wheel while speeding down a busy highway. The path of life requires
as much attention as does any road.
But then there are times where we transfer control, like a flyer
going into automatic pilot. Although we have taken our hands off
the wheel, we have not stopped thinking about the direction of
the flight. It is just that Someone else is doing the steering.
And taking our hands off the wheel is not a proper analogy, because
in actual life, our hands are on the wheel; we must take responsibility
for our lives. And yet, through observing the Torah and its mitzvos,
we follow a lifestyle that leads to self-transcendence.
A person who does not believe in G-d and does not recognize the
G-dly element within his being can never experience true joy.
He is either wrapped up in himself or living a life of emptiness.
He has no other alternative because he is not aware of anything
beyond his own self.
When, by contrast, a person recognizes G-d and realizes that
G-d lies at the core of his own being, he can truly let go of
himself. And then he can feel genuine happiness.
Holelus means letting go by becoming less than what one really
is. The person forgets about himself and about anything that has
meaning, content and purpose. In the extreme, this means becoming
drunk, or taking drugs that rob one of control. But it has far
more common expressions. A person thinks that the only way he
can be happy is by forgetting about everything but the sensory
pleasure he is receiving at the time. He lives for the moment.
This can be very destructive, for when a person ignores responsibility,
he is likely to hurt himself, his family and the people around
Simchah, joy, also involves letting go, but it is a very different
type of letting go. One does not lose control one transfers control.
When a person experiences true joy, he lets go of himself, but
he connects to something higher, G-d. He lets go of his petty
ego and makes it possible for a dimension of his identity that
is far deeper and far truer to surface.
This is one of the reasons simchah is considered a high level
of Divine service. For this selfless connection with G-d over
and above all the advantages one gains by avoiding depression
is a goal for which we should all strive.
That is what Shabbos and the holidays are all about. On these
days, we rise above all humdrum worldly experience and sense true
Have you ever seen people singing and dancing for hours and hours
on Simchas Torah? The people who are celebrating are humans, not
angels. They each have their own array of worries and troubles.
But on Simchas Torah they are not concerned with these matters
at all. They are not thinking of themselves. As they sing and
dance, they are connecting to a deeper dimension that exists within
their being. That is where the simchah comes from.
The Previous Rebbe used to say2 that on Simchas Torah, the Torah
itself wants to dance. However, since a Torah scroll has no feet,
the Jews must function as its feet and carry it around the reader's
This analogy enables us to understand why a person can be so
happy on Simchas Torah. Because he has gone beyond his own identity,
he is no more than the Torah's feet, and he can rejoice with complete
abandon. And yet, his life will be filled with the meaning and
purpose that stems from the Torah he is carrying.