This is an updated version of the essay that sparked The Long Short Way over a year ago. It happened when Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a while after his My Life: Chassidus Applied videos came out, made an essay contest to encourage people to tackle an issue head-on. I didn’t win or even come close, but the idea stuck with me.
Joy: The Long Short Way
Many wonder what the key is to happiness. Is happiness really an “inalienable right?” It seems that a lot of our time is spent on this pursuit. From the days of the gladiators to infotainment industry of today; happiness is king. We’re blessed to live in a world where we can afford to spend our time improving our quality of life. We have the time to think, feel, and wonder. People are becoming more aware of the fact that money doesn’t buy happiness, but what then about our “inalienable right?” What about the pursuit of happiness? In the light of Chassidus, however, we see that true joy is attainable. Everyone wants joy, yet we seek distraction as a cheap substitute. A real joy, like diamonds, is valuable and yet not as rare as we might think. Real joy is easily accessible.
The short answer is that joy is a result of humility. The common understanding of humility is to be self-deprecating and to lack self-esteem. Nothing could be further from the truth. Humility means the lack of self-absorption. If we try to be happy based on our own accomplishments, as successful as we may be, our joy will be relative to our efforts. Furthermore, since a limited thing can only cause limited pleasure, after a while, we’ll need to find a different means of achieving the same high. Another option could be to simply accept ourselves just the way we are. The result of that might be joy, but it would be a life of complacency. Accepting ourselves the way we are would be shutting down our natural human ambition. To accept where we’re holding and not aspire for anything greater is not humility—it’s a cheap knock-off, a cop-out, an excuse.
In the Rebbe’s words,¹
“In order to experience joy in G-dliness, we must first have humility…The two concepts, joy and humility, are seemingly diametrically opposed. Humility is expressed by an overall collapse of a person and their personality, whereas joy is expressed by a general expansiveness of the person and personality. Humility is not a low self-esteem as a result self-deprecation and finding faults in ourselves. Humility is the lack of self-absorption. Although a we may know our positive qualities and advantages, we don’t dwell on them…we person don’t credit ourselves for all our greatness.
“…And this the meaning of the verse, ‘And Moshe Rabeinu was the most humble of men…’ That although he knew his greatness [he didn’t credit himself for his achievement]. This is because he was aware that [his greatness] was a gift to him from On High. [Moshe Rabeinu] made the following consideration: had someone else been granted the same abilities as me, they would be as greater than me. They would have revealed an even greater potential.
“This type of humility is an impetus for joy. Joy is a result of receiving a gift. A gift is [purely] profit; it comes without effort. A wage, on the other hand, is nothing to be joyous about.
“Therefore, when humility is not present, and the person is self-absorbed, their joy is incomplete. Firstly, because they feel entitled to what they have and secondly, if the person is missing anything [in life], it will be cause for depression.”
From what the Rebbe said, we see the chassidic definition of humility, joy, ego, and depression. We also see the relationship between humility and joy, and ego and depression.
Joy and the Self
The Rebbe explained further that real joy could be experienced by anyone, but for the joy to be deep, meaningful and lasting, it needs to be holy. Although joy can be experienced when we succeed, lasting joy must come from gratitude. As soon as we become aware of our joy—as soon as we realize how humble we are—it loses its holiness. Joy is, after all, klippas noga. Klippas noga is anything which is neither good or evil—it’s made up of both. As soon as we realize our humility, our joy becomes tainted—ever so subtly—by ego. Our Rabbis taught, “Joy breaks all boundaries,” for the better and the worse. For the better, we may not care as much if someone invades our personal space, we might become more outgoing. When we’re happy, we lose our inhibitions. If we’re happy for the right reasons, all the things that were holding us back in our relationship with G-d disappear. On the other hand, if our joy is tainted by ego, then it’s clear to everyone around us. We might become obnoxious and offensive—we lose sight of the other person’s boundaries.
When we realize how everything in our life is a gift, we’ll be humbled. This is the kind of humility that leads to gratitude. We must realize that all our contributions to the world were granted to us for free from G-d. We shouldn’t feel entitled—that we deserve all the good things that happen to us. And we shouldn’t feel short-changed and depressed when things don’t go our way. All our abilities and talents are gifts (and it’s rude not to accept a gift). We should feel grateful and show the Grantor of our gifts that we’re happy with His choice.
Sefer HaMaamorim, Chaye Sarah, 5712, ch. 3 and on.