What to say when you have no words - A Jewish look at simcha

Succos is called “zman simchaseinu.” The reasons for this are many but the underlying theme for all of them is that this time of year is particularly joyful and one that we should experience in a celebratory fashion.

But how can we be joyous when four orphans must mourn for their murdered parents, who brutal deaths they witnessed firsthand? How can we sing and celebrate when bloodthirsty murderers extoll their deaths and encourage more, training their children to hate Jews and conduct jihad?

What kind of smile should come to our lips as we watch footage of Jewish worshippers in the Old City, including children and even infants, who are mercilessly harassed on their way to or from the Western Wall?

What kind of dance would best capture the (not so) shocking difference in treatment at that ultimate farce known as the UN between an inciter of savage murderers (Abbas) and the leader of a beleaguered nation fighting for its physical, political and economic survival (Netanyahu)?  

How can we rejoice when the world witnesses and suffers through endless senseless mass murder, including what happened in Oregon?

I, certainly, am not qualified to try to answer these questions. But perhaps we can find some direction by better understanding the Jewish view of simcha.

Generally, we define simcha as joy. Joy is often viewed as a reflexive feeling that comes from deep-seated contentment, a sense that all is right in our world and in the world at large. Conversely, when we see things that don’t add up, such as young orphans or wanton murders, whatever joy we possess flies right out of us as if our emotional balloon was savagely punctured.

But that is not how our sages define the term. Rather, they see joy as the active outgrowth of appreciative thought and recognition of the good that we have experienced. It does not simply “happen” by, say, attending a concert, winning the lottery, or even having a baby. Those moments may give us temporary opportunity for joyful expression, but the joy that they engender cannot be sustained without something deeper to fuel it.

For example, we know that the month of Adar is a particularly joyous time. However, the joy of Adar is not something that happens to us as the result of external factors. Rather, we are told that mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simcha (Taanis 29a,) when the month of Adar enters we increase our joy. The process, as Rav Eliyahu Dessler writes, mirrors the month of Av, the opposite end of the joy spectrum. There we say that “when the month of Av comes we decrease our joy” (Taanis 4:6.) Just as in the month of Av we gradually intensify our mourning (progressing from the “9 days” to the week of the fast to its eve, etc.) Similarly, in Adar we must progressively build our levels of joy through ongoing contemplation of our salvation and numerous expressions of appreciation. We use song, drink, costumes and other forms of merriment to draw out and intensify the underlying feelings that we have built within us.

Another expression of this concept can be found with a famous statement of Metzudas Dovid (Mishlei Ch. 15, 30 s.v. me’ohr einayim.) He writes that “ha’aras einayim b’davar hamesupak yismach lev ki ain b’olam simcha k’hataras has’feikos.” In essence Metzudas Dovid is saying that joy emerges from clarification of areas of doubt and uncertainty. When we achieve clarity in a matter of importance, whether with regards to a Torah thought or a personal matter like finding a proper life partner, then we can experience true joy.

I often refer to Succos as “the official holiday of Jewish history.” In many ways it parallels our experience through millennia of challenge and suffering. We are continually maltreated in a world that desperately wants to annihilate us and our message. We sit exposed, with but a flimsy roof above us, and beseech our Creator for protection and sustenance. And while there have been countless times where our faith – in Him and in humanity – have been deeply tested, we remain faithful and committed, knowing that our Rock has never and will never forsake us.

Our joy can and does come from this realization. No nation has experienced doubt and uncertainty more than ours. But no nation has experienced clarification of that doubt more than the Jewish people. Guided by prophetic predictions, the wisdom of our teachers and leaders, and the lessons of the collective history that we are all witness to, we have emerged from threat and doubt time and again with newfound clarity and commitment.

How can we make sense of the brutality that greets us in the streets and in the press each day? For that I have no words. Our hearts and prayers go out to each person who suffers (what appears to be) needless suffering. But our commitment to joy, the deep, inner joy that keeps us going no matter what, must remain strong. Such joy can only be nourished through heartfelt appreciation for the endless, miraculous protection and salvation that our nation has received for nearly four thousand years and the deep belief that we will merit to achieve, speedily in our days, clarification for all of the trauma and pain that we have been forced to endure, even during zman simchaseinu.