Millions of people have gone through life intent on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The crass form of this philosophy, hedonism, is rightly condemned as unrealistic and immoral. A more sophisticated version, Epicureanism (named for the Greek philosopher Epicurus, 341-270 BCE) modified the doctrine to make room for ethical behavior that in the end would prove more pleasurable than selfishly pursuing its opposite. The rabbis, however, rejected Epicureanism too; because it recognizes no God who cares about human behavior, they warned against becoming an apikoros.
Some two millennia later, a Jewish form of pleasure-seeking set in with Hasidism, which branded sadness a dangerous form of sin. The idea grew out of the hasidic belief that everything exists within God. If God pervades everything, sadness about anything must be a misplaced delusion that God is in nothing. Melancholy is the ultimate sin — a denial of God! It is a mitzva to rejoice.
The hasidic emphasis on joy generally provided spiritual solace to the Jewish masses, whose poverty-stricken condition left them nothing — objectively — to be joyful about.
By comparison, most readers of this column are likely to have a great deal to be happy about. Yet death and disaster haunt our lives too, and our generation’s “happiness quotient” is not noticeably greater than what our impoverished European ancestors felt. So I am more than a little intrigued by the hasidic call for joy lamrot hakol, despite it all.
Take, for example, a hasidic comment on a relatively innocuous turn of speech in our sedra: “If it come to pass (v’haya im) that you forget Adonai your God…you will certainly perish.” The phrase v’haya im, we are told, expresses joy. “Forgetting God” in this context must mean forgetting that God is everywhere and that joy is central; we perish because of undue melancholy.
To be sure, I do not mean depression as a mental illness — no one should be blamed for a chemical imbalance or the sheer inability to find any joy in daily life. Nor do I make light of the tragic inequities that make some people’s lives a series of miseries; who can blame someone for suffering all of Job’s pain but (not being Job) enjoying none of his patience?
What I do mean is what most of us face, sooner or later: somewhere this side of Job, but such trials as a seriously ill child, a parent with Alzheimer’s, a debilitating illness, financial ruin, or a long-time relationship in tatters. Is it reasonable to expect to find joy in life even while subjected to an unreasonable share of the world’s injustices, insecurities, and infirmities?
On my wall at work is a cartoon picturing a bird telling a hiker, “I do not sing because I am happy. I am happy because I sing.”
If we wait to sing until we are happy, we might wait forever. Singing is not a response to what life deals us but a state of mind, a predilection that precedes it. Some people sing through life no matter how bad their condition. Others growl their way through it no matter how pleasant their lot. It is sometimes hard to sing with the rest of the human choir, the people upon whom fortune shines with inordinate brightness. But we always have a choice: Are we singers or growlers? It is a sin to be a growler, the hasidim say.
To be sure, we should also not stand in judgment upon those who cannot manage to find joy despite illness, suffering, and death. The innate state of growling is sufficient curse in itself; we ought not add to it by moral censure.
But we can take hasidic wisdom to heart; we can wake up each morning and wind down each night with a song, not a growl, experiencing the miracle of inner tranquility despite outer turmoil, and show a way out to those too mired in growling to find their singing voice.