Happiness at happy times shines bright and clear, but the joy wrestled from the abyss of despair can transform the world. For such joy says, “I too was there. I was born from the thick of night, wrought from its bitterness and suckled by its dark earth. And from that power, I became light. I am the Light of the Six Days of Creation, the boundless, infinite light that knows no darkness.”

Let me attempt to paint for you a portrait of the Jewish soul when the Baal Shem Tov1 arrived on the scene: The terror of the Cossack and Tartar massacres of 1648–49 that destroyed entire communities still reverberated throughout Jewish Poland. The grand disappointment of the false messiah, Shabtai Tzvi, had left many faithful Jews heartbroken and disillusioned. The infrastructure of Jewish life had been corrupted, as the Polish princes routinely sold appointments as community rabbi to unworthy characters, making a mockery of the position. A schism had formed between those who could afford Talmudic scholarship and those who, in their struggle to survive, had neither the time nor the head for books and study.

Especially demoralizing was the standard fare of popular sermons. So obsessed were some preachers with their themes of guilt, punishment and despair, they would castigate their congregants over matters for which they were neither obligated, nor could reasonably be expected to achieve—such as failing to take upon themselves a sufficient number of voluntary fasts, then for failing to suppress the desire to manage one last meal before such a fast, and then for failure to devote the entirety of the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to fasting, mourning and weeping. The forms of divine retribution elaborated upon for such crimes are better left unrepeated, success being measured by the tears, dread and trembling instilled in the audience.

If you live with something long enough, you begin to believe it’s a member of your family. Such was the case with misery: Jews had begun to see depression as a mark of piety and a Jewish duty. To fight it was not just futile, but outright heresy, for any trace of joyousness was suspect as sin.2 In synagogue sermons, ladles of despair stirred in a pot of self-pity made up the soup du jour, often without a trace of consolation:

At all times and at all hours, the gentiles come and fall upon us… often we say, “Death is preferable to life”…Behold, G‑d is testing us to determine whether we truly cling to Him, and He abandons us to the gentiles, for in these times we are abandoned, and anyone who wishes may lay claim to us…3

And now a traveling preacher stands on a crate in the town square, extolling the virtues of the simple Jew, describing G‑d’s interminable love for each and every one “as a father would love an only child born to him in his old age,” relating tales of simple folk such as themselves and citing Talmudic passages to lift the peoples’ spirits and breathe joy into their souls. A mighty uprising had sprung forth, that of Chassidism, one which would transform forever the Jewish landscape.

It wasn’t as though the Baal Shem Tov introduced joy to Judaism. Much to the perturbation of the preachers mentioned above, the Torah declares only one fast day and 16 days of joy—25, if we add Purim and Chanukah. The Book of Psalms, alongside its bitter laments, gushes with explosive, often euphoric songs enjoining us to “serve G‑d with happiness!” The Talmud lauds those who perform mitzvahs joyously, informing us that prayer and study are meant to be joyous activities. Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides, Bachya ben Asher all discuss joy as a divine service, even a vital one.

But for the Baal Shem Tov, joy was more than a detail of Jewish life; it was a path of its own—the key and central path.

Yet further: The Baal Shem Tov didn’t limit joy to prayer, study and performance of mitzvahs. Consistent with his guiding principle that G‑d is everywhere and can be found in all things, he taught that every event that befalls a person, everything a person sees or hears, all presents an opportunity to know the Creator and to serve Him. There can be no time, no circumstance and no place in which you cannot connect with the Infinite. And if so, there is no excuse at any time to not be happy—since joy is the key to all divine service.

And perhaps most fascinating: the Baal Shem Tov understood joy as a device to repair the world, as a key to redemption.

This last point is crucial to understanding the texts within this collection. So that you can grasp its meaning, I must ask you to discard the romantic fantasies painted by 19th century historians, and rediscover the Baal Shem Tov and his disciples within the true intellectual context of their times: as Talmudic scholars, as well as scholars of the Kabbalah, in particular, the Kabbalah of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria4—as were, in fact, most Jewish scholars of the time. In a sense, they were only drawing to its logical conclusion the revolution that the Ari had begun a century and a half earlier.

When the Ari came, wrote his protégé, Rabbi Chaim Vital, a new path was opened. New souls entered the world, souls of the World of Tikun. Tikun means repair. The human being had been empowered to repair his own world.

Until the Ari, the standard narrative scripted the human being into a passive role in his own redemption: G‑d had made a magnificent world; human beings had messed it up. You now had a choice of doing mitzvahs, cleaving to G‑d and being good, or continuing to contribute to the mess. Better to be good, because the day will come that G‑d will take retribution from those who were bad and dispense reward to those who are good.

You may describe that redemption in apocalyptic terms, as had many of the mystics. You might describe it as an almost natural event, as had Maimonides, the rationalist. But in all versions, humanity had little to do other than keeping well-behaved.

The Ari stood all that on its head, providing humanity a proactive role: G‑d made the mess, he said; we are cleaning it up.

In the Ari’s narrative of tikun, G‑d first emanated a magnificent world—the world called Tohu. Yet this primordial world could not contain its own, unbounded light, resulting in its auto-annihilation. The fragments of that world fell to generate the artifacts of our own world, carrying with them a trace of that original intense energy. The human being was then placed within this shattered world to put the pieces back together, harnessing the energy of those sparks of unbounded light, by carefully following the instructions of the Torah. Once that job is done, redemption arrives.

In effect, the Ari presented an activist theology of mitzvahs: Every Torah act is a device for returning that which had been lost, reuniting that which been torn asunder, and tuning the world to the harmony originally intended. For the students of the Ari, tikun was an endeavor that lifted every word of prayer, pervaded every concept of Torah, and guided their mental focus in every mitzvah they performed.

Few ideas spread as fast and extensively as these teachings of the Ari. Yet, conceptually, they remained a world apart, in the carefully guarded cloister of mystic prayer and meditation. There, often misunderstood, even abused, they awaited the epiphany of Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov to clarify them and take them out into the street.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the sixth rebbe of Lubavitch, describes the earliest such awakening in a tradition he had received from his teachers. He tells the story in the voice of the Baal Shem Tov himself: 5

On my sixteenth birthday, the eighteenth of Elul 5474 [1714], I was in a small village. The innkeeper was a Jew of quintessential simplicity. He knew his prayers only with difficulty—he had no idea what the words meant. But he had a great awe of heaven, and for everything that would occur to him he would comment, “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever.” The innkeeper’s wife and partner had a different saying: “Blessed be His Holy Name.”

On that day, I went to meditate in solitude in the pasture, as had been taught by the sages before us, that on one’s birthday one should meditate alone for a period of time. In my meditations I recited Psalms and concentrated on the yichudim6 of the divine names.

As I was immersed in this, I had lost awareness of my surroundings. Suddenly, I beheld Elijah the Prophet—and a smile was drawn over his lips. I was very amazed that I should merit a revelation of Elijah the Prophet while alone. When I was with the tzaddik Rabbi Meir, and also with others of the hidden tzaddikim, I had the fortune to see Elijah the Prophet. But to be privileged to this while alone—this was the very first time, and I was quite amazed. Understandably, I was unable to interpret the smile on Elijah’s face.

And this is what he said to me:

“Behold, you are struggling with great effort to focus your mind upon the divine names that extend from the verses of psalms that David, King of Israel, composed. But Aaron Shlomo the innkeeper and Zlata his wife are entirely ignorant of the yichudim of divine names that extend from “Blessed be He, and may He be blessed for ever and ever” that the innkeeper recites, and “Blessed be His Holy Name” that she recites. And nevertheless, these yichudim cause a tempest throughout all the worlds far beyond the yichudim of divine names that the great tzaddikim can create.”

Then, Elijah the Prophet told me about the pleasure G‑d takes, so to speak, from the praise and thanksgiving of the men, women and children who praise Him—especially when the praise and thanks comes from simple people, and most specifically when it is ongoing, continual praise—for then they are continuously bonded with G‑d, blessed be He, with pure faith and sincerity of heart.

From that time on I took upon myself a path in the service of G‑d to bring men, women and children to say words of praise to G‑d. I would always ask them about their health, the health of their children, about their material welfare, and they would answer me with various words of praise for the Holy One, blessed be He, each one in his or her own way.

For several years I did this myself, and at one of the gatherings of the hidden tzaddikim they all accepted this path…

The mystical unities of the divine names were no longer the exclusive domain of the mystic; they were out there in the mouths and deeds of every simple innkeeper and his wife, whether they knew of them or not. The job of the enlightened was to reveal them there, to fan their flames and carry them yet higher.

The most vital tool for repair and redemption was joy. In the last four of the teachings below, you will see how the Baal Shem Tov understood the effect of joy in a classically Lurianic way. Troubles, pain, evil decrees, all that is ugly and bad in this world,all are artifacts of constrictions of light. Evil is a kind of epiphenomenon that exists only as a result of the pre-cosmic catastrophe, the shattering of Tohu: since this spark of good has fallen, it has been severed from its origin, allowing its light to be distorted and even trapped within a coarse outer shell. Just as illness is caused by a constriction of the flow of life from one organ to another, so all troubles, pain, evil decrees and any ugliness of this world is caused by a constriction of the divine energy that vitalizes all things. (In kabbalistic terms, these are called judgments.)

The cure, then, is to reattach the fallen spark to its origin. “Judgments can only be sweetened at their source,” goes the kabbalistic dictum. It’s up to Torah to guide us to find that origin and provide us a means to affect the reunion. The Baal Shem Tov found that connection in joy: Find the beauty within the ugliness, the spark of light behind the darkness, the beneficent Creator’s deeper intent behind whatever circumstance is disturbing you, and celebrate it. The celebration itself redeems the divine spark and carries it up to its origin. Reconnected, the evil is sweetened and transformed.

In truth, the Zohar says it all:

Come and see: The Lower World is always ready to receive, and is called a precious stone. The Upper World only gives it according to the state of the Lower World. If it is of glowing countenance from below, in the same manner it is shined upon from above; but if it gloats in sadness, it is given judgment in return. Similarly, it is written, “Serve G‑d with joy!”—because human joy draws another supernal joy. Thus, just as the Lower World is crowned, so it draws from above.7

The joy of Chasidim, then, is not a naive joy, nor the dizzy, unbridled enthusiasm of a crazed fanatic. It is joy with a purpose—because we see what is broken, therefore we search for the key to heal it. And the twist of that key is the sincere joy within our hearts.

In a famous letter to his brother-in-law, the Baal Shem Tov writes of his ascendance to the highest of all supernal realms, the chamber of the Messiah. He asks, “Master, when will you arrive?” The answer: “When your wellsprings will spread to the outside, and the common people will make yichudim as you do.”

In our joy and celebration, we are achieving that destiny.