Chapter 11: Simchah: A Dynamic
Joy is important, not only as the antithesis of depression, but
as a fundamental element of our Divine service in its own right.
Just as the love of G-d and the fear of G-d are necessary for
our Divine service to be complete, so too, joy is essential to
our spiritual development. All the mitzvos that a person performs,
and everything that he does as an expression of his connection
to G-d, should be inspired with joy.
This is reflected in Psalms, which tells us:1 “Serve G-d
with joy; come before Him in celebration” — celebration
being a medium that allows us to come before G-d and feel His
presence. The Rambam clearly spells out this concept, writing:2
The happiness with which a person should rejoice in the fulfillment
of the mitzvos and the love of G-d… is a great service….
There is no greatness or honor other than celebrating before G-d.
Similarly, with regard to prophecy, the Rambam mentions3 several
prerequisites for prophecy that reflect the epitome of personal
development: “Prophecy is bestowed only upon a very wise
sage of a strong character, who is never overcome by his natural
inclinations in any regard. Instead, with his mind he overcomes
his natural inclinations at all times.”
Nevertheless, he emphasizes4 that “prophecy cannot rest
on a person when he is sad and languid, but only when he is happy.”
The experience of prophecy involves the Divine Presence manifesting
itself within a person, and this is possible only when the person
This concept is also reflected with regard to the Beis HaMikdash,
the permanent home for G-d’s Presence. It is written,5 “Strength
and gladness are in His place.” His place, the Beis HaMikdash
, was characterized by happiness, as evidenced by the joyous songs
that the Levites would sing and play on their instruments.
Similarly, with regard to time: Shabbos, the holiest day of the
week, and the festivals, days set aside for their holiness, are
days of happiness and rejoicing, for happiness brings us closer
Not only is simchah an important feature in a Jew’s service
of G-d, but in a sense, serving G-d with simchah can be considered
higher than all other paths of Divine service. Let us share a
story told about Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. Once, on the
day before Yom Kippur, a Jewish innkeeper living near Berditchev
was arrested by the landowner on whose property the Jew’s
inn was located.
The Jew had not paid his rent for a long period of time. He was
not trying to steal; he just did not have the money. Business
was not that good; he had a large family; and on the day that
the rent was due, he simply did not have the money.
In those days, the landowners were very powerful. In their own
territories, they ruled like kings. So after waiting several days
for his money and issuing a number of warnings, the landowner
locked up this Jewish innkeeper and his family on the day before
Yom Kippur. He told the Jewish community that unless they present
him with the overdue rent — 300 rubles, no small sum of
money in those days — the family would rot away in a dungeon
for the rest of their lives.
One of the greatest mitzvos is pidyon sh’vuyim, the redemption
of captives. And so, one of the chassidim in Berditchev took it
upon himself to collect the money to redeem this family. Although
the sum was well beyond his means, he wanted to make this effort
because he knew that the lives of the family depended on it. They
had no one else to help them, and unless he was able to amass
the money, they would stay in the landowner’s dungeon until
He began collecting. Since it was the day before Yom Kippur,
the people were especially sensitive and gave generously. But
they did not give enough. It is not that they did not want to
— just as the innkeeper had not had the money to pay his
rent, they also did not have that much to give. And so, after
collecting for several hours, the man had managed to gather less
than fifty rubles.
He knew he needed three hundred, and he realized that at this
pace he would never get the money before Yom Kippur and might
never get the money at all. He decided to take a rasher course
of action, and headed to the neighborhood where the free-thinking
Jews lived. These were younger people, who worked with the non-Jewish
landlords. They were wealthier, but their concern for their fellow
Jews and for Jewish practice was less. Still, it was the day before
Yom Kippur, and there would be no better time to approach them.
When he reached that neighborhood, he saw a hall filled with
many people. There were Jews sitting there gambling, playing cards.
The fact that in a few hours Jews all over the world would be
saying Kol Nidrei did not appear to interest them. They were interested
in playing cards, drinking vodka and gambling.
The chassid saw that the tables were filled with money. On any
one of the tables there was enough money to redeem the family.
He approached one of the tables and told the people, “Tonight
is Yom Kippur, the time when G-d forgives everyone. Why not prepare
for the day? I have something constructive for you to do with
your money. A family is in terrible need. Instead of wasting your
money gambling, give it away for a good purpose.”
At first, the people just ignored him. But the chassid was persistent.
Finally, one of them told him, “You know what? You see this
vodka standing here on the table? It is finif un ninesiker.”
Finif un ninesiker means 95% ??? ?????? ???? ? --> alcohol.
That is not 95 proof, that is 190 proof. The man filled an ordinary
drinking glass and told him, “If you drink a glass of this
finif un ninesiker , we will collect 100 rubles for your cause
from our table alone.”
The reaction of the chassid was, “How can I drink a glass
of whisky that is 190 proof? In a couple of hours, it will be
Kol Nidrei. After a full glass of this, I will be finished; there
is no way I will be able to concentrate on my prayers.”
But then a second thought came to his mind, “If they give
me a hundred rubles, I will have a third of the amount I need
to save this family. What should I be concerned with? Having a
more spiritual Yom Kippur myself or doing everything I can to
save the family? Who knows how long it will take to collect one
hundred rubles any other way?” And so, he made the decision
to drink the glass of vodka.
He downed the glass; and the gamblers kept their word and gave
him the money. Afterwards, he wobbled over to the next table and
spoke to the people, “You see your friends, they just gave
me a 100 rubles to help a poor family. Why do you not do the same?”
The people told him, “You know what? We will do the same,
but you will have to do the same, too. If you drink another glass
of finif un ninesiker , we will also give you 100 rubles.”
The chassid began to plead with them, “Please, tonight
is Kol Nidrei. As it is, I am going to be dizzy tonight, but if
I drink another glass, I am just going to be out. You are going
to give me the money anyway, so why make me do this?”
But the people demanded their entertainment. “Listen, either
drink it or good-bye.” Again the chassid thought, “What
is more important: my spiritual experience on Yom Kippur or the
fact that I can get this family out of the dungeon earlier?”
He did not have to think long. His entire life was directed towards
others, not to himself. And so he gave them their entertainment
and drank the glass of vodka. They gave him the hundred rubles,
and everyone was happy.
Afterwards, he wobbled over to a third table and asked them whether
they would contribute to the cause. He explained that now he needed
less than a hundred rubles. It was just hours before Yom Kippur,
and they could make it possible for a poor family to spend the
holiday outside a dungeon.
They were not interested in his explanations, but they were prepared
to continue the fun. So they made him the same offer: one hundred
rubles for a glass of finif un ninesiker. He did not have to think
much at all. Particularly after two glasses of vodka, it was very
clear to him: “Forget about a more spiritual Yom Kippur;
think about the family. With this glass, you can get them out
today.” He drank the third glass and they gave him the 100
rubles. Now he had all the money he needed to get the family out.
He asked the gamblers a favor, “Please, can someone help
me get over to the home of this landowner so that I can give him
the money?” The spirit of Yom Kippur must have indeed been
in the air, for one of the gamblers excused himself from his company
and drove the chassid to the landowner’s home in his carriage.
The landowner was not happy to see a drunken man at his door,
but he was very happy to get his three hundred rubles. After counting
the money, he ordered that the family be released. Naturally,
they were ecstatic. The innkeeper ran over to the chassid and
hugged him, thanking him profusely. The chassid was not interested
in receiving thanks; he did not see anything special in what he
had done. He asked the innkeeper one favor. “I will not
be able to get to the shul by myself. Could you help get me there?”
Needless to say, the innkeeper obliged and brought the chassid
to the shul. There he lay down on one of the benches. He knew
that he would not be able to pray, but he wanted at least to sleep
in the atmosphere of Yom Kippur.
Soon people started coming to shul for Kol Nidrei. Everyone took
a book of Tehillim in hand and prayed. As the din of their prayers
began to rise, the chassid was aroused. He looked up and saw the
ark open and people taking out Torah scrolls. Although this is
also done before the Kol Nidrei prayers, the most normal association
a person would have with Torah scrolls being taken out at night,
particularly when he is intoxicated, is the celebration of Simchas
And so our chassid jumped up from his bench, ran up to the bimah,
the platform on which everyone was standing, and began shouting
“Atah Horeisa,” the prayer recited before the Simchas
Torah Hakkofos. Everyone looked at him in amazement. “What
is he doing? Doesn’t he know tonight is Yom Kippur?! In
a few moments we will be reciting Kol Nidrei. What kind of joke
is he playing? Is he drunk?” They were about to grab him
and throw him out of the shul.
But the Rebbe, R. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev turned around and
said, “Leave him alone. He has the right to do what he is
doing.” R. Levi Yitzchok was a tzaddik, a completely righteous
and spiritual person. He knew everything the chassid had gone
He began to explain to the congregation that the holidays of
Tishrei follow in sequence. It is not mere coincidence that Rosh
HaShanah is followed by Yom Kippur, and then by Sukkos, Shemini
Atzeres, and Simchas Torah. A spiritual initiative begins on Rosh
HaShanah and continues and intensifies until it reaches its peak
on Simchas Torah.
“This person,” he said, pointing to the drunken chassid
, “has just displayed tremendous mesirus nefesh (self-sacrifice).
He sacrificed his Yom Kippur experience to save a Jewish family.
But he did not give up Yom Kippur; he sprang over it. His self-sacrifice
enabled him to bypass all the intermediate levels and reach the
level of Simchas Torah, the zenith of our Divine service throughout
There are a lot of things we can learn from this story. One of
the concepts relates to the subject of our discussion, the preeminence
of the service of simchah , joy. As we explained, the holidays
of the month of Tishrei are like a spiritual ladder, with each
holiday serving as a stepping stone to the next. What is the last
holiday, the highest rung reached during the month? Simchas Torah.
On Simchas Torah, we do not make a special increase in the time
we spend studying; basically, what we do is sing and dance with
the Torah scrolls. Simchah, joy, is the main feature of this holiday.
Although Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are the Days of Awe —
the holiest days of the year — Simchas Torah is the climax
of the Tishrei experience, indicating that serving G-d with joy
is the highest rung on this ladder of spiritual connection to
This may be difficult for us to understand: On Rosh HaShanah
and Yom Kippur, a person must seek to penetrate to his spiritual
core and arouse the G-dliness that lies at the essence of his
being. We have no difficulty understanding that this is a powerful
spiritual experience. It is much harder to understand that singing
and dancing are spiritual, and indeed so spiritual that the rejoicing
of Simchas Torah surpasses the soul-stirring prayers of Rosh HaShanah
and Yom Kippur.
The resolution of this difficulty depends on a fundamental concept:
that the essence of the Jews’ connection to G-d is bittul,
selflessness, feeling at one with G-d. Bittul means not seeing
oneself as a separate, independent entity, and G-d as another
separate, independent entity, but rather recognizing that all
existence — including one’s own self — is a
manifestation and an expression of G-dliness.
This changes a person’s conception of who he is. Instead
of understanding his true self as his individual identity, he
appreciates his soul, the G-dliness that is within him. This also
gives us a new understanding of mitzvos : every mitzvah that we
perform brings this inner oneness to the surface and intensifies
it. Instead of being a checklist of how many mitzvos we have performed
and how much Torah we have studied, our Divine service becomes
a process leading us away from yeshus , the awareness of ourselves
as an independent entity, bringing us to bittul , selfless union
In a certain way, simchah is the strongest, most powerful demonstration
of this oneness. When a person is b’simchah , he rises above
self-concern; he does not think of himself at all. He is able
to recognize that there is something deeper and greater beyond
him — G-d. And he can become aware that G-dliness is within
Simchah allows for the most complete level of connection to G-d.
When a person does a good deed, he does not necessarily transcend
his ego. For example, when a person gives charity, it is true
that he is giving away his money, but he may not be letting go
entirely. Often the person will feel satisfaction at having given.
His sense of self still figures into the equation.
The same is true for all the other mitzvos; they do not necessarily
take a person totally beyond himself. This can even be true of
the mitzvah of loving G-d. Although this love should be an actual
feeling of connection — not merely an abstract conception
— just as in every relationship, the person involved feels
his own identity.
In contrast, simchah, by definition, requires a person to go
beyond himself. The only way a person can truly experience simchah
is if he completely and totally lets go of himself. Unless he
is willing to surrender himself in this manner, he will always
have things that are weighing him down. As long as a person thinks
about himself, his concerns — whether material or spiritual
— will prevent him from being b’simchah. Only when
a person leaves his self behind and connects to G-d can he experience
This relates to the renowned statement of our Rabbis,6 simchah
poretz geder, “joy breaks through barriers.” When
a person is happy, his joy fills him with energy and enables him
to break through any barriers that stand in his way.
For this reason, we find that when people are happy, they can
overcome certain weaknesses with which they could not deal under
ordinary circumstances. Everyone has limitations and weaknesses
that prevent him from making real progress. Being b’simchah
enables him to go beyond those weaknesses. Since simchah brings
out the deeper and true dimension of one’s identity, the
essence is not confined to the limitations of one’s ego.
We see examples of this in history. One of the things kings would
do on the day of their coronation or at a royal wedding was to
pardon prisoners. What connection does pardoning prisoners have
with a wedding or a coronation? The idea is that these are times
that the king is b’simchah, and so the blocks created by
the prisoner’s past conduct no longer exist for him. Yes,
the prisoner did something wrong, but when there is happiness
in the air, there can be no obstacles hindering the inner relationship
a king shares with his subjects. And therefore he pardons them.
Simchah generates energy; it pushes us forward and gives us a
sense of productivity and growth. It does not mean that we will
merely forget about our problems and pretend they do not exist.
It means that we are given new energies that enable us to overcome
any problems that we may confront.
The medical community is also beginning to recognize the power
of joy. Researchers have discovered that even physiological problems
and diseases can be more easily overcome with simchah. They call
it “healing with laughter.” There are stories of people
who had cancer ??? for which they had been treated without success.
Nevertheless, over time, when these people were put into an intensely
joyous frame of mind, their cancer disappeared!
Often the body possesses the resources to heal itself, but depression
hampers the body and prevents these resources from working. Simchah,
by contrast, stimulates energy and gives the body the opportunity
to overcome infirmity.
Surely, this concept applies with regard to the functioning of
our minds and hearts. Simchah does not merely transfer our attention
away from our difficulties; it arouses unlimited inner energy
that enables us to break through problems, weaknesses and limitations.
It stirs our creativity and gives us the potential to live a productive
life, continually advancing to higher peaks.