NiSh’ma: Simcha

NiSh’ma — let us hear — is our simulated Talmud page. Here, we offer four takes on the notion of simcha—how we discover and embrace joy in a complicated world.

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Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, Aley Shur II

"Every joining of opposites produces joy...Every place where there is joy there is connection..."

Cultivating Connectedness

David JaffeBy David Jaffe:

A wedding is one of the greatest moments of joy in Jewish life. Two separate individuals — with different personalities and different histories— choose to join their lives together. According to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a late 20th-century teacher of mussar — the Jewish discipline of moral development and applied ethics — it is this very joining that creates joy. What is joyful about the act of connection? Living separate, isolated lives can leave us vulnerable to thinking that life is simply about our own ego gratification. On the other hand, when we experience deep connection with another person, we know life is greater than our own self. Expanding our heart and giving to others become joyful experiences. And though relationships lacking mutuality may cause pain, the opportunity for love and giving that comes with connection remains a possibility.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s comment, “It is a great mitzvah to always be joyful,” suggests that cultivating deep connectedness creates an underlying state of joy that is present even when one feels brokenhearted over a loss. Just as the sun remains shining behind the clouds, the reality of connection is always there, even when it is obscured by temporary feelings of emotional pain. We cannot avoid the pain that comes with loving, living, and losing. But cultivating and feeling connectedness gives us the strength to move through pain — to become resilient and find joy again.

Joyful Holidays

Emma Kippley-OgmanBy Emma Kippley-Ogman:

Joy runs through our three spring holidays — Purim, Pesach, and Shavuot.

At Purim, we experience the juxtaposition of opposites. We turn everything over until we cannot discern blessing Mordechai from cursing Haman. All year, we strive for righteousness, but on Purim, righteous and wicked meet, and we revel in the freedom from knowing which is which. On the morning after Purim, we put good and evil back in their places — moral clarity rushing back in.

Our experience of Purim — not knowing which role we play, righteous or wicked — leads us to the deeper joy of Pesach, when we are commanded to seek liberation for oppressed and oppressor, now knowing we could be either. Our experience of liberation on Pesach gives us the Torah’s most-repeated commandment: Do not oppress the stranger, because we have been strangers.

Finally, on Shavuot, we learn the story of Ruth, a Moabite — the definitive “other” who becomes the ancestor of David, mashiach, and our ultimate redemption. The joy of Shauvot, then, is the deepest of all. We are simultaneously ourselves and the one we thought we hated, the one we thought hated us.

On Purim, we test the possibilities of opposites, and joy emerges; on Pesach we act on that radical experience for liberation; and, finally, on Shavuot, the deepest joy emerges as these opposites collapse altogether and we know that we are one.

Transforming Sadness

Justin GoldsteinBy Justin Goldstein:

During the eighth to tenth centuries, our talmudic sages taught in Avot DeRabbi Natan, “Joy is referred to by ten names: rejoicing, joyousness, ecstasy, jubilation, enjoyment, exultation, cheerfulness, gladness, splendor, merriment.” The text is not serving as a thesaurus; rather, it comments on the myriad ways a human being experiences emotion. Even in a brief moment, we are able to experience multiple, and even contradictory, emotions.

Perhaps Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, in his work Aley Shur, is suggesting that not only does the external joining of opposites produce joy, but when we become aware of our own internal opposites, we gain the potential to produce joy as well. Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, the thirteenth-century Spanish kabbalist, in his Sefer HaMeshalim (Book of Parables), writes: “To what are joy and sadness similar? To day and night…Just as the day is connected to night and night connected to day; so too is sadness connected to joy and joy to sadness…” The boundary between day and night is fluid; one moment it is daylight, then you blink and it is night. Transforming sadness into joy is not a single moment either; it is a process. As Wolbe teaches, the “joining of opposites produces joy”: Relationships are essential to that process of transformation — not because relationships are easy and inevitably produce joy, but because they offer us complexity and the opportunity to explore our own internal opposites. And through that process, we learn to find joy — in any of its ten names.

Joining Opposites

Ross WeissmanBy Ross Weissman:

It seems that Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe is referring to the joining of lofty opposites — akin to God forming a figure from dust and then breathing into it “the breath of life.” (Bereshit 2:7) Earth and breath joined together to create something new: “…then Adam became a human being.” The creation of humanity is joyous, and it required a mixture of earth and spirit, form and flow, a coming together of opposites.

Rabbi Wolbe, however, seems to suggest that joy is present in the joining of more mundane opposites, too. He did, after all, write, “every joining of opposites produces joy.” Is there joy when paper and pencil meet? When devouring a piece of chocolate that’s bittersweet?

A delicate and attuned dance allows joy to emerge from the joining of opposites. True of earth and God’s breath, this is also true of flesh and flesh — with friends, family, lovers, and intimate others. Joy emerges when opposites reveal their unexpected likeness in their synchronous step on the dance floor. Both sides must be flexible, responsive, and complementing of the other.

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