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When (and How) to be Sad

When (and How) to be Sad


A man is dancing at the wedding of his only child. He’s a good dancer, but never before, and never again in his lifetime, will his dancing attain the grace and expressiveness it now displays. In fact, all his talents, capabilities and qualities are currently at their zenith: his mind is at its keenest, his loves and his hates are at their most passionate. Put a brush in his hand, and he’ll paint you a picture which exacts the utmost of his artistic potential.

The chassidic masters use this parable to demonstrate their definition of “joy”: joy is revelation. Joy unearths latent potentials no one even knew existed, and amplifies revealed potentials to levels no one ever thought possible. Joy is an effusion of self that spills over to places and achievements far beyond the soul’s natural horizons.

If joy is the revelation and expansion of the soul, then sorrow is a soul’s concealment and contraction. In sorrow the soul retreats, silencing all outward expression, shriveling to its narrowest sliver of selfhood.

Little wonder, then, that chassidic teaching frowns upon sadness. An old chassidic saying goes, “Sadness is not a sin, but its effect on the person is worse than any sin’s.” The soul was sent to this world not to be, but to do; not to merely exist, but to achieve. To retreat into the self is to reverse the flow of life.

And yet, there are times when we’re told to be sad. The daily recitation of the Shema at bedtime (keriat shema she’al ha-mitah) is one such occasion: the closing moments of the day are a time of self-examination, a time to experience regret and remorse over the day’s failings and missed opportunities. Once a month, on Erev Rosh Chodesh (“Eve of the New Moon”), the process is repeated on a larger scale, encompassing the month that is coming to a close. And then there are the annual fast days and “days of reckoning.” Currently we find ourselves in the most sorrowful period of the Jewish calendar, the “Three Weeks” that mourn the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

Because without these times of sorrow, our joy would flow false. The tiniest misalignment at the source would develop into a gross discrepancy further downstream, becoming more and more corrupt as it follows its uncorrected trajectory. Our lives would turn erratic and diffusive, eventually evaporating altogether. That is why it is crucial that, on occasion, we stem the flow, retreating back to the source to make the needed adjustments and revisions.

Of course, there’s always the danger that the withdrawal may become a vortex, the self a black hole sucking deeper and deeper in, allowing no escape. If joy has its hazards, sorrow is the more dangerous by far.

This, then, is the key: the proportion must be preserved—a daily hour, a monthly day, some twenty-odd days a year—and the sorrow confined within these bounds. It must remain an active seeking, never a passive sinking. And always, always must sorrow be permeated with an awareness of its purpose: to serve as a tool of joy.

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Sarah Z Golan Heights July 24, 2014

Wow. This is a great piece. Yankie Tauber - this is brilliant. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Reply

Clayton Winton Spokane, WA/USA July 20, 2012

Joy in sorrow? lol ... I love these readingts, and this is a fine one. To me, this is a time to remember that one can't always be happy/joyful, or we know not what joy truly is. Yet, we are always asked, ''Are you happy?'' and we give memorized responses, "yes." But 'happy' is not perpetual. If it were, we'd still be 'joyous' from the 'sweet treat' given us as children. KoolAid? :) It is selfish to become addicted to either 'happy' or 'sad' as adults. These times of rememberance allows us to reflect on the many lessons learned from that which makes 'rocks our worlds.' That's what it means to me. Reply

Shoshana August 3, 2011

Code of Jewish Law In the Shulchan Orach, the Code of Jewish Law, it ways that when the month of Av approaches, we should " lesson happiness", in Hebrew ,"me sh'nichnas Av, mema'atim besimcha' Where does it say anything about being sad? could you please quote soures ? Thank you. Reply

ruth housman marshfield, ma August 2, 2011

Joy All Joy contains Oy. An old joke but true. Don't we laugh sometimes so hard we cry? We say, These are tears of joy.

Life has this bipolar quality wherever we look. Can we know the one, without the other?

And yet I would say positive is always stronger, containing as it does negative. Look at the mathematical symbols and see this.

Yes, sorrow often draws us deeply into our deepest self. Sometimes in meditative reflection, in feeling so sole, so alone, we also find our way to G-d.

There are no hard and fast rules here. In fact Love breaks all the rules. Reply

MK BROOKLYN, NY via July 10, 2009

when to be sad I am roman catholic, but got onto your email list and enjoy reading it.
I have a very close friend who lost her mother last month and is dealing with this on a daily basis. The sorrow she feels is unavoidable but I believe she tries to turn those feelings to an honored remembrance and celebration of her life, so the sorrow does become a starting point for something positive. Reply

Isaac LI, NY July 12, 2007

Re: A comment -When and How to be Sad To Steve Brody, Orange, ca:
The closer you pull the arrow towards yourself, the farther it will go. Use the sometimes sorrowfull introspection as a springboard towards true joy and you're on the right track. May I suggest that you study chapter 31 of Lessons in Tanya, coviniently located in the Chassidic Text section of 'Spirituality' for more great stuff on this topic. Reply

Steve Brody Orange, ca July 11, 2007

A comment -When and How to be Sad The text read as follows:
"And always, always must sorrow be permeated with an awareness of its purpose: to serve as a tool of joy."

Can you explain further how awareness of sorrow can be serve as a tool of joy?

By the way that posting is extremely interesting and potentially very helpful Reply

Desi IL/USA July 10, 2007

sadness Very powerful and truethful words said poetically and thoughtfully. Thank you. Reply

Mimi Notik July 9, 2007

To the point - yet poetic and illuminating. Thank you! Reply

Stephen P. Meyer Charleston, W.Va. USA October 18, 2005

when and how to be sad Yanki Tauber gives us the perfect counterwieght to his article on 'four reasons to be happy'. Reply

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