By Daniel Bortz
“When the (Hebrew) month of Adar begins, we should increase in joy.” (Taanit 29a)
“Serve G-d with joy.” (Psalm 100)
Clearly, being happy is a crucial aspect of spiritual service and Jewish living. We can all agree that we’d love to be happy, and the desire for happy living is one of the most sought after pursuits of our time. But what is the secret to attaining it? What is true happiness?
Is happiness the popular caricature of a fashionable crowd exiting an expensive shopping mall and laughing with abandon? Or partying amongst hundreds of other acquaintances? We know this is not a proof at all of true happiness. An outward smile means little if one is aching inside. Conversely, a person sitting alone may be the happiest in the room.
Many will say that our natural state is one of joy. Before worries and struggles came, young children are carefree and can laugh, dance, and dream. This sentiment can be heard in a new hit song by the band Twenty One Pilots’, entitled “Stressed Out.” One may similarly argue that happiness comes from a lack of pain.
While these ideas have some truth, one could argue that as we mature and progress and our goals move from wanting new toys to desiring loftier goals (not just more expensive toys), living without struggle and pain isn’t enough to satisfy us and bring us lasting joy. More than that: A person in great pain may be the happiest of all!
Imagine an athlete preparing for a competition, lifting heavy weights until the point of exhaustion. An alien observing this gym activity might think there’s someone with a gun pointed at this person forcing the activity. But the truth is, this person is beaming inside, knowing that this effort will result in true satisfaction down the line – something great is being built here. The struggle and pain don’t deter joy, they actually lead to joy!
In Jewish thought, happiness comes from the understanding that you are on the right path, doing what you should be doing, living a meaningful life with purpose. If you realize that you are going in the right direction and building something great in your life, happiness naturally ensues. True inner joy and contentment needn’t be manifest in wild laughter, drinking games or somersaults. We are made of body and soul, and the soul needs to feel that its higher purpose for being on this earth is being fulfilled. True sadness comes when we don’t know which road we’re supposed to be going on.
Those annoying and painful burdens? Those daily tests and struggles? They are not random, but are in your life for a reason: to help make you a stronger and better person, helping you reach your life goal. Adding weight on the bench press may feel painful, but the lifter smiles inside with the knowledge that the goal of a strong body is getting closer. Pain during your life journey isn’t the same when you know it’s building your character into greatness.
The Jewish nation is often compared to fish, while Torah and spiritual wisdom is likened to water. Just as a fish needs to dwell in water to survive and thrive, a human needs Torah and its spiritual guidance to excel. You can take a fish out of its natural habitat onto dry land, and it will bounce up and down and appear to be having the time of its life. But in truth, it’s dying.
Spiritual striving, meaningful goals and living a life of purpose are crucial to happiness. Let’s look at the verse, “Serve G-d with joy” differently and divide it up. “Serve” – live for G-d, for others, for a higher purpose, and then will come “joy.”
Happy Adar and Purim! May we always look to align our lives to our individual purpose, striving to transcend our natures and grow from strength to strength.