Mitzvah of Joy
In our parsha this week we read “...you shall guard my statutes and my commandments, that a person shall observe and live through them, I am Adonai Your God.”
Rambam teaches that we live through them by observing the mitzvot with chiyut, great energy and joy. His source text for this is Devarim 28:47 which states that God brought judgment upon Israel for not serving “Adonai your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart”. He thus considers observing the mitzvot with joy and alacrity as a great mitzvah itself. But he does not include this as one of his 613 mitzvot because it applies to all of them.
So we conclude that it is a mitzvah to observe the mitzvot with joy. But the Rambam takes it a step further. Living a life of joy is a mitzvah in and of itself! We are required by Hashem to be filled with joy, not just in the observance of mitzvot, but in all aspects of daily life.
He cites the story of King David dancing before the ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. He was not fulfilling a particular mitzvah at this point, he was instead just overcome with joy in the Lord. His wife, Michal, was upset that he was cavorting in such an unseemly manner. David’s response was “I was dancing before Adonai, who… appointed me as the leader of Israel… so I celebrate before Adonai. Yes, and I am willing to look even more foolish than this, even to be humiliated in my own eyes!”
I recently heard a story of a man who called up the rabbi of a shul and told him that he was visiting this week. He said to the rabbi, “It is the custom in our shul to shout and cry out during davening. Will this be OK?” The rabbi said, “No. I don’t want anyone to be that disruptive in service.” So the man came and for a while was trying really hard to contain himself. But finally overcome with joy he began shouting and singing. Afterwards he apologized to the rabbi and asked why he didn’t stop him. But the rabbi said to him, “It was fine. Who am I to squash the fervor and devotion of a Jew?”
Living a life of joy is not only good for us, but for those around us. A key tenet of Judaism is responsibility for others. If we are filled with depression, anger, self-pity, we are going to take it out on others. We will tear them down as well. We cannot love our neighbor as ourselves without a life of joy. It therefore is a mitzvah to be joyous as it brings life to those around us.
Dennis Prager, a famous Orthodox Jewish radio host, said that most of the evils in the world are committed by people consumed with self-pity and a sense of victimhood. The Nazis saw themselves as victims of the Jews. White Supremacists see themselves as victims of people of color. Many active shooters are so consumed with self-pity that they lash out in violence randomly. On a lesser scale, we lash out against those around us when we are consumed with self-pity and victimhood. We are not free to love others in this state of mind.
But how do we fulfill this mitzvah? Life can be hard. It is full of challenges. We face strife in our families, troubles at work, difficulties with health. It is often easy to fall into darkness. It is easy to be grumpy, harsh, judgmental, and unkind.
This sermon comes from a very personal place for me. These last few years have been very, very difficult for me. Losing my job of 20 years, getting a lesser job that I am not very satisfied with, health issues in my family, troubles with the family, and, I will say, things haven’t been all that great at times even at shul in the last bit. Now add the pandemic onto all of that. Guys, I am being very honest with you now. There are days in the last few years where I wake up with crushing depression. Days where I go to bed with it. Nights where I wake up feeling overcome with depression and anxiety. I have been frequently plagued by horrible dreams.
This is a new experience for me. Up until a few years ago I had life pretty good. Sure there have been ups and downs, as everyone has, but nothing major. These last few years have been major. I have never experienced the depths of sadness and despair like I have in the last few years. But what it has made me realize is that joy is a choice. I can either choose to succumb to the darkness or I can choose to not let the worries and trials of life consume me. I have decided to choose life, to choose joy. I choose to fulfill the mitzvah of living a life of joy.
How do I do this? How do we do this? First, we recognize that this is not a one-time decision. It is a daily choice. And second, we do it by keeping our eyes on Hashem. How? Through prayer, study, and acts of kindness. We must each and every day be resolute in keeping our eyes on Him rather than our troubles.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe said “True, you cannot control the way you feel, but you do have control over your conscious thought, speech, and actions. Think good thoughts, speak good things, behave the way a joyful person behaves,even if you don’t fully feel it inside. Eventually, the inner joy of the soul will break through.”
Just last week, I had horrible nightmares all night and I woke up one morning with crushing depression. I did not want to get out of bed. I did not want to go to work. I did not want to daven. But you know what I did? I chose life. I chose joy. I got up out of bed and did all of those things! I posted on our website about the Shiviti meditation. This has been a source of great strength for me in recent weeks. I am chanting the very words “I place Hashem before my eyes continually”. How much more direct can we get than that?!
We can only fulfill the mitzvah of living a life of joy by keeping our eyes on the Source of Joy Himself. And we do this not only for our own health and well-being but for the health and well-being of those around us.
Our mystics point out that the Hebrew word for joy, simcha, plus the letter yud, often used as an abbreviation for Hashem’s name, has the same numerical value as the word Mashiach. Our full joy in the Lord will come in Olam HaBa ushered in by the Messiah. We, as Messianic Jews, have the resurrection power of Mashiach to infuse us with joy. We have the power of the Ruach HaKodesh to infuse us with His fruits of peace, love, joy, goodness, faithfulness, patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control. We have the power of Olam HaBa in our very souls. We need to tap that to fulfill the mitzvah of living a life of joy.
Notice that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. It is a daily choice we must make to choose joy; to take our sadness, anxieties, and depression and place it before Hashem, seeking His strength and His power to aid us.
Going back to our original verse that we are to live by the mitzvot. Rashi interprets this verse differently than Rambam. He says that this speaks of eternal life in Olam HaBa. We will experience the same level of joy there that we experienced here in Olam HaZeh, this world. This reminds me of the book The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. He describes people finding heaven to actually be painful because they are too consumed with other things. One woman, for example, is so consumed with her son that she chooses to go to Hell where he is. Others find even the blades of grass in Heaven torture to walk on. His point is that we reject Eternal Bliss because we have not prepared ourselves for it in this life.
Rather humorously, one rabbi declared that a person who observes all of the mitzvot scrupulously but without joy will be a park bench in Olam HaBa. They will find no joy there either.
Rambam’s and Rashi’s views are two sides of the same coin. We prepare ourselves for Olam HaBa, for the Messiah’s embrace, by embracing joy and devotion to Hashem here and now.
These past few years have taught me an important lesson. Joy is a choice. Life is hard at times and often joyless, but we have the joy of a Risen Messiah who gives us His strength to make it through the hard times.
I have also learned the truth stated by our tradition that we do what is right and the feelings will follow. The other day, as I drug myself out of bed and davened, I found my mood changing from sadness to joy. I was reminded of all the things that I have to be grateful for. Most importantly of which is that I am simply His beloved.
I have also learned that facing my troubles head-on with Hashem’s power, that I can grow as a result of it. Yeshua’s brother, Yaakov, wrote “Regard it as pure joy, my brothers, when you face various kinds of trials; for you know that the testing of your trust produces perseverance. But let perseverance do its complete work; so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing.”
Rav Shaul says “All things work to the good of those who love Adonai”. All things means even the bad things that happen to us. They also include our own mistakes and sins. If we keep our eyes on Hashem in devotion and love, all things will work to our good.
May we observe the mitzvah of joy.
May we choose joy and life. For the sake of ourselves and others.
May we keep our eyes steadfastly upon Hashem and His Messiah.
Then we will truly experience simcha with a “yud” and find that our joy spills over into Olam HaBa, where we won’t just be park benches.