It's no secret that joy and Judaism go hand in hand. The Divine Presence only rests on one who is joyous,1 for example, and we know that the saintly Arizal merited his revelations of inner wisdom because of his incredible joy in serving G‑d.2

But simchah – joy – is more than just the “icing on the cake” in our connection with G‑d. It’s an essential element that defines that connection.

Consider, for example, a verse near the end of the Torah.3 In the middle of listing the many curses that will befall the Jewish people if they don’t listen to G‑d, the Torah provides a reason for these curses: “Because you didn’t serve Hashem, your G‑d, with happiness and gladness of heart.”

The Torah is stating that a relationship with G‑d that is devoid of joy is not considered a relationship at all.4 To use our cake metaphor: Joy is the oven that makes the cake. You can have the best ingredients in the world, but without an oven, you don’t have a cake.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad chassidism, gives a very practical reason for the need for constant joy.5 He explains that life should be viewed as a wrestling match. If one contestant is feeling down or depressed, even if they are physically stronger, they will almost certainly lose. To win, you need enthusiasm and excitement.6

But what happens if you’re going through something that emphatically is not a happy experience? How are you supposed to be happy when you feel anything but?7

Let's explore three methods our sages have provided for being happy even when the going gets tough:

1. Joy by Focusing on Our Connection to G‑d

In an oft-cited letter (printed in Igeret Hakodesh,8 the fourth book of Tanya), Rabbi Schneur Zalman writes that we need to be happy even when we lack truly important things (such as children, health, or livelihood). He explains that true faith is recognizing that everything G‑d does and gives is good (if we can’t see it, it simply means it hasn’t been revealed yet9), and tells us to work on ourselves until the areas we’re lacking in no longer have meaning, because we’re choosing instead to focus on our connection with G‑d and the constant good He bestows upon us.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman concludes that the entire purpose of the struggle was to bring us to this mindset. Once we’ve accomplished that, the struggle will no longer have any purpose, and we’ll see our situation transformed for the better.10

Our Matriarch Sarah embodied this approach. Rashi famously comments on the verse,11 “The years of the life of Sarah,” that “All her days were equally good.” The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, asks:12 How can we possibly say that all her days were equally good? How can one say that the day she gave birth to her son Isaac in her nineties was as good as the day Pharoah abducted her from her husband?

The Rebbe answers: Sarah, like everyone, lived a life filled with ups and downs. Some days were better, others more challenging. But those challenges were not the things that gave Sarah meaning. They weren’t her life. Her life lay in her relationship with G‑d. She made that relationship the focus of every single moment of every single day, and they were, therefore, all equally good.

The Rebbe once used a metaphor13 to illustrate this idea: Suppose you found out you’d won a hundred million gold coins, but you’d also lost a copper penny. You wouldn’t stop to calculate that if you subtract a copper penny from a hundred million, you still come out a winner. The fact that you lost a penny is completely meaningless!

Likewise, life is filled with ups and downs, and sometimes we experience trying times. But that’s all meaningless in the face of the joy we feel when we know that we, as finite, mortal beings, were chosen by G‑d and given the opportunity to connect with Him every single day.

2. Joy as a Tool to Change Our Situation

There’s another layer to this discussion: Joy isn’t just something to embrace, even in difficult times, but something that actually has the power to change our situation.

There’s a well-known story about a chassid who was told from On High that one of his children would pass away that year. He traveled to his rebbe for a blessing, but the rebbe indicated that nothing could be done. The chassid remained, despondent, at his rebbe’s synagogue, and ended up sitting on the sidelines during the hakafot (Torah dancing) of Simchat Torah, too depressed to dance. Yet, despite his pain, he couldn’t shake the feeling that a Jew is supposed to dance on Simchat Torah. Eventually, he joined the hakafot and danced with all his soul. His rebbe later informed him that the power of his joy had annulled the decree against his son.

As the Baal Shem Tov famously said, “If tears open up the gates of heaven, joy demolishes them!"

3. Joy Because We Trust So Deeply, We Know It’ll Work Out

So far, we’ve talked about joy as something to embrace despite your situation or as a tool to change your situation. But there’s a third layer: Joy because of your situation.

To explain: A Jew must not only believe in G‑d, but trust in Him.14 One of the key differences between the two is that faith is an abstract belief that everything He does is for the best, in one way or another. Trust, however, is the active choice to continuously trust that everything will work out, no matter your situation.

G‑d responds to such trust by ensuring that it will be for the best.15 Like the famous Nachum Ish Gam Zu (literally, “Nachum, the ‘This too’ man,”) who responded to every situation in life with the line, “This, too, will be for the best.” So great was his trust in G‑d that every situation actually did work out for the best.

As the Rebbe wrote in a letter:

Certainly you have heard the statement of the Rebbe Maharash… “The world says, ‘If you can’t go under, you have to go over,’ but I say, ‘From the outset, go over!” Likewise, in this situation: even though you seemingly should have to wait for the state of your health to improve before you can be openly joyous, there is room to say—based on the aforementioned quote—that you can feel the joy now, even though you haven’t yet seen the improvement in a revealed way. Such behavior will actually hasten the improvement! As we heard many times from the rebbeim, “Think good, and it will be good.”

Joy in a solution that has yet to be revealed isn’t the same thing as relying on a miracle (something we are explicitly told not to do16), but an outcome of our complete trust in G‑d’s goodness.

The Rebbe also wrote:

You are undoubtedly a believer. The number one principle of our faith is that G‑d runs the world. And if He can handle the lives of 1.5 billion people, then certainly you’ll see in your own situation the fulfillment of the promise, ‘I have made you, I will carry you, I will sustain you, and I will deliver you.’

So now you have to consider: G‑d has promised that ‘I will sustain and deliver you.’ So mull this over: is it possible that a gentile in some faraway land could have the power—G‑d forbid—to stop G‑d from fulfilling His promise? And then—as a natural conclusion from this—consider this: Does G‑d need my worries about how G‑d will handle all my affairs and solve all my problems, or will G‑d find and show you the best solution regardless of your concerns?

So … you have two options:

a) Be consumed with worry until you see the fulfillment of the blessing, wondering if maybe G‑d forbid the blessing won’t be fulfilled—and then, when it is fulfilled, be presented with a new concern: why did you have to waste so much energy on needless worries?

b) Remain steadfast in your faith and trust in G‑d—that He’ll lead you on the right path and fulfill all the blessings He gave you. And then, when the blessings are actualized and fulfilled, you’ll be able to tell yourself: ‘Look how well I handled that! I didn’t worry about things that didn’t need to be worried about.’

With Joy, There Is No Darkness.

In the Hayom Yom of 15 Nissan, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi is quoted as saying, “When healing brings faith—causing you to say, ‘Thank G‑d for my recovery’—then you were, at least initially, sick.

“But when faith brings healing, you were never sick at all.”

This is the beauty of experiencing joy in difficult situations. When you wait until the situation is (hopefully) resolved, all the joy in the world can’t take away the negative experience you had.

But when you react to every situation with trust and joy, then every situation becomes cause for celebration.