Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), the founder of the Chassidic movement, was once asked: "Why is it that chassidim burst into song and dance at the slightest provocation? Is this the behavior of a healthy, sane individual?"
The Baal Shem Tov responded with a story:
Once, a musician came to town—a musician of great but unknown talent. He stood on a street corner and began to play.
Those who stopped to listen could not tear themselves away, and soon a large crowd stood enthralled by the glorious music whose equal they had never heard. Before long they were moving to its rhythm, and the entire street was transformed into a dancing mass of humanity.
A deaf man walking by wondered: Has the world gone mad? Why are the townspeople jumping up and down, waving their arms and turning in circles in middle of the street?
"Chassidim," concluded the Baal Shem Tov, "are moved by the melody that issues forth from every creature in G‑d's creation. If this makes them appear mad to those with less sensitive ears, should they therefore cease to dance?"
Tradition has it that before the followers of the Baal Shem Tov received the name chassidim, they were called the "frielicheh"—the "happy ones." From the very inception of chassidism, in fact, perpetual joy was one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of the chassid.
As the Baal Shem Tov said: "The ability to be joyous, by discerning the good and joyous within every experience, is considered by chassidim as a biblical command!"
"For with joy shall you go out..." A popular chassidic adage, repeated in the name of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789-1866), interprets this verse thus: "For with joy you can go out—and bid farewell to all your afflictions and problems!"
Indeed, initially one of biggest complaints lodged against the chassidim was that "all their days is one big holiday!" "Is this what G‑d desires, to eat drink and be merry?"
In 1801, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was incarcerated (for a second time) due to libelous information supplied to the Czarist government by opponents of chassidism. The first complaint included in the document they presented the government was that the chassidim are creating a new religion, as evidenced by the fact that "in the book of the founders of chassidism it is stated that a person has to always be happy, not only while praying—but at all times. This idea goes against the Jewish religion..."
The main source of inspiration in the Jewish communities of that era was the maggidim, preachers, who were skilled narrators of Torah and religious stories. The maggid's mission was to preach morality, and to awaken the dormant spirit of Judaism in the hearts of the masses. In the beginning of the eighteenth century, a new "fire and brimstone" school of maggidism became popular, one that preached moral and religious conduct as a safeguard against the terrible punishments of the Day of Judgment. (See Prelude to a Sermon.)
The Baal Shem Tov opposed the methods of these maggidim, who criticized and demoralized the Jewish masses in an attempt to motivate them.
Although such admonition may have its time and place, as may be seen from the harsh admonitions issued by some of the Biblical prophets, the Baal Shem Tov taught that the Jew who has suffered nearly two millennia of exile and persecution needs not to be further broken by chastisement and rebuke.
This was specifically true regarding that particular generation. Only fifty years before the Baal Shem Tov's birth, in 1648, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe had been ravaged by the Chmielnicki pogroms. They had also been ravaged spiritually, by the false messiah, Shabtai Zvi.Gentiles jeered at and scorned the Jews.
Recognizing their despair and broken spirits, the Baal Shem Tov made it his mission to revitalize the Jewish people. Traveling from village to village, he would gather the Jews in the markets and anywhere he could find them, and bring them a message of hope and joy, teaching that joy in itself is precious before G‑d, and that the warmth with which they served G‑d was dear to Him, despite – or even due to – their simplicity.
As expressed by the aforementioned Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, "The Baal Shem Tov wiped away tears from the Jewish people. He worked hard to ensure that every Jew would be happy simply because he is Jew."
Furthermore, the prevailing Jewish philosophy at that time advocated fasting, remorse and even self-affliction as the path to G‑d. And in general, Judaism was defined in terms of fear of G‑d and solemn somberness—leaving little room for joy, which was perceived as sacrilegious frivolity.
The Baal Shem Tov taught otherwise.
"Better to serve G‑d with joy and without self-abnegation, because such behavior causes depression."
"A cardinal rule in serving G‑d is to avoid depression as much as possible."
"Crying is very bad; a person must serve [G‑d] with joy!"
Before discussing how the Baal Shem Tov revolutionized the Jewish view on joy, it must be mentioned that happiness was never foreign to Judaism. As King David declared: "Serve G‑d with joy!" Indeed, the Talmud states that "One should not stand up to pray while dejected…but only while still rejoicing in the performance of a mitzvah."
The concept of simcha shel mitzvah, the "joy of a mitzvah," has always been part and parcel of Jewish teachings. After all, can there be a greater privilege than serving the King of kings? As such, mitzvot must be executed with joy.
Rabbi Joseph Albo, the 15th century author of the classic work Sefer Haikarim, writes: "Joy grants completion to a mitzvah, only through it does the mitzvah achieve its intended objective." Similarly, Rabbi Elazar Azkari, 16th century Safedian scholar and author of the work Charedim, writes: "The main reward for a mitzvah is for the great joy in it." "The reward is commensurate to the joy [with which the mitzvah is performed]."
Indeed, the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal, once said that all that he achieved – the fact that the gates of wisdom and divine inspiration were opened for him – was a reward for his observance of mitzvot with tremendous, limitless joy!
But this joy was always limited to the study of G‑d's law ("The commandments of G‑d are upright, causing the heart to rejoice") and mitzvah observance. But in other areas of Divine service, and specifically in the area of teshuvah (repentance) and when striving to cope with temptations and bodily needs and impulses, the accepted approach was self-affliction and general moroseness. And certainly joy did not permeate the hours of the day when an individual was not preoccupied with G‑dly service.
Into this landscape entered the Baal Shem Tov and proclaimed: "A person must always be happy."
The Baal Shem Tov drew on an age-old Jewish teaching: "All your actions should be for the sake of Heaven." Whatever a person does – eating, sleeping, business, and even leisure activities – can all be part of one's Divine service, provided that they are done with the proper intentions. As such, if a person is serving G‑d in all his actions, then the Psalmist's injunction to "serve G‑d with joy" applies at all times and in all situations.
Happiness despite Past Misdeeds
"Depression, even if due to regret over a sin, is a repugnant character-trait and an immense obstacle to the service of the Creator," said the Baal Shem Tov, a statement which must have caused consternation among the Jewish leadership of his time.
The Baal Shem Tov writes to one of his disciples, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polna'a, author of the first chassidic work ever published, the Toldot Yaakov Yosef: "I've become aware . . . that [you] are saying that it is necessary to fast [to achieve penance]. My innards tremble from this declaration. Furthermore, I command – and joining me [in this injunction] are the celestial angels and the Holy One, blessed be He, and His Shechinah – that you should not, G‑d forbid, be involved with this, for this is an action of depression and dejection..."
(Indeed, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef later wrote in name of the Baal Shem Tov the following remarkable line: "If tears open up the [heavenly] gates, joy absolutely demolishes them!")
Chassidic thought further developed the Baal Shem Tov's approach, applying it even to the mitzvah of teshuvah. It is certainly counterintuitive to associate with joy a mitzvah whose essence is regret. However, the chassidic masters explain, can there be a greater joy than the knowledge that no matter how much you've messed up, no matter the grime your soul has accumulated, no matter how distant from G‑d you've become (intentionally!), you still have the ability to instantly repair that which was broken and reestablish a relationship with G‑d?
Teshuvah is the greatest and most powerful mitzvah—as such it must be done with the greatest joy!
This importance of maintaining a joyful disposition is illustrated by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi with a parable:
"Just as it is with a victory over a physical opponent; like in the case of two people wrestling, each trying to throw down the other, if one of them is lazy and lethargic, he will be easily defeated and beaten, even if he is stronger than his fellow. So, too, it is impossible to conquer the evil nature [hindering one's service of G‑d] with laziness and lethargy, which are symptoms of sadness and a stone-like dullness of the heart. The only way to win is with alacrity, which derives from joy..."
Moreover, even when occupied in business and worldly affairs, should there descend upon a person sadness or anxiety (even if it regards spiritual matters), it is "certainly a trick of the evil inclination which saddens him, in order to lure him afterwards into lusts, G‑d forbid, as is well known."
The Baal Shem Tov further taught that joyous prayer is more effective in eliciting Divine blessings—a radical departure from the at-the-time prevalent view that prayer was primarily an exercise of sadness and weeping, fasting and self-infliction. He compared this to "a pauper petitioning and beseeching a king with great weeping: he will receive but little. A minister, however, who joyfully recounts the king's praises before him and in that context also submits his request, the king will give him a very large gift as befits the minister's stature."
This concept, that being joyful is crucial for the receipt of G‑d's blessing, is based on a statement in the Torah regarding the primary cause of Divine punishment and rebuke, particularly as it is interpreted by the Arizal.
The verse reads: "Because you did not serve G‑d, your G‑d, with joy and gladness of heart, from an abundance of everything…you will serve your enemies in hunger, thirst, and nakedness, and in want of everything."
The simple meaning of the verse, as explained by Rashi, the foremost commentator of the Torah, is that punishment results from the fact that we did not serve G‑d with joy when we had "an abundance of everything." But theArizal interprets the verse thus: "You did not serve G‑d with a joy greater than the joy caused by an abundance of everything." Meaning: You did serve G‑d, and you even did it joyfully, but to be a recipient of blessing, a Jew is expected to experience greater joy in serving G‑d than from any other source of happiness!
Happiness in G‑d's Presence
The Baal Shem Tov took the idea of perpetual joy a step further. It's not only because one is always serving G‑d, it's also a result of the recognition that one is always in G‑d's presence.
"Bear in mind regarding the Creator, that 'the whole earth is full of His glory,' and His Shechinah (Presence) is constantly at your side… Always be joyful. Think and believe with perfect faith that the Shechinah is at your side and watches over you. You look at the Creator, blessed be He, and the Creator, blessed be He, looks at you."
Explained at length in the 33rd chapter of Tanya, the idea expressed here is that no matter how distant we may seem from G‑d, in fact, the entire world is merely a manifestation of His light, and it is man's mission to come to that realization and welcome G‑d into his own home. "Now," the Tanya explains, "when one contemplates deeply and at length on this matter of G‑d's true unity [that pervades creation], his heart will rejoice with this faith; his soul will be gladdened by it to the point of rejoicing and singing with all his heart, soul and might. For this faith is tremendous—for it constitutes an experience of the closeness of G‑d… How great is the joy of a common and lowly person when he is brought close to a king of flesh and blood who lodges and dwells together with him in his [the commoner's] home. How much more, infinitely more, [ought one to rejoice] in the nearness of the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, and in His dwelling."
The Ultimate Happiness
The Baal Shem Tov writes in a letter to his brother-in-law about a vision he once had, wherein he ascended to the supernal chamber of Moshiach, and he then asked Moshiach, "When will the master [Moshiach] come?" Moshiach responded, "When your wellsprings [i.e., your teachings] will spread forth."
The dissemination and popularization of the Baal Shem Tov's teachings regarding the importance of happiness are certainly directly connected to the Redemption. As a popular chassidic adage states, "Joy breaks through all boundaries and constrictions"—including the constrictions of exile.
In fact, the connection between joy and Moshiach is highlighted by the fact that the name Moshiach ("anointed one") shares the exact same four Hebrew letters as the word yismach ("let him rejoice").
To conclude with a chassidic saying.
King David writes regarding the future redemption:
"...then they will say among the nations, 'G‑d has done great things with [the Jews]' Indeed, G‑d has done great things with us; we were happy."
Why has G‑d "done great things with us"? Why have we merited redemption?
Because "we were happy."