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The Rabbi's Blog

A Message from Rabbi Spalter

What Makes You Happy?

The Hebrew month of Av, which begins today, starts off with 9 somber days during which we mourn the destruction of the two temples in Jerusalem. This is in addition to many other tragedies that befell the Jewish people throughout the ages. During these nine days, we refrain from anything that can be harmful such as traveling (unless you have to), elective or scheduled surgeries (unless it’s an emergency) and other such potentially dangerous activities. In short, during these days, we keep a low profile, we stay out of harm’s way as they are not particularly days of good Mazal (energy) for the Jewish people. Our sages even go a step further and instruct that “when the month of Av begins we decrease our joy”. In other words, we stay away from anything that is associated with joy during this period.

Here is the problem; joy is a very elusive word. What exactly is joy? For some, joy is brought about when they buy a new car, for others, joy is created when their children give them lots of Nachas. Some might be happy and joyous when they watch their favorite TV show and yet others might feel joy as a result of waking up in the morning and living another day. To them life itself is a source of Joy. Does this mean that we are not allowed to buy a new car, have Nachas or watch TV during these nine days? If we find inner joy from life itself, do we have to do something during this time to curtail those inner feelings? What do the Rabbis mean when they instruct us to “decrease our joy when the month of Av begins”?

On a practical level, it means that we should not engage in activities that are meant to cause joy that is out of the ordinary. For example, we are not allowed to partake in musical events and the like as they create an atmosphere of active joy. We should refrain from purchasing clothing or anything that makes a person uniquely happy such as a new car (unless you absolutely need it and the purchase cannot wait until after the nine days).  But to feel happy?  By all means. After all, there is no inner button that we can press that causes our joy and happiness to just shut down. In fact, there is a mitzvah to serve G-d with joy and since we are always supposed to serve G-d, it follows that we are always supposed to be happy including these nine days. 

The Chassidic masters actually went a step further and interpreted the above rabbinic instruction thus: when the month of Av begins, we have to “decrease” - the divine concealment caused by the destruction of the temple - “by means of joy”. In other words, not only do we not reduce the joy in our hearts, we are instructed to find deeper means of joy in order to diminish the effects of the destruction. So practically, this means that while throughout the year we engage in all sorts of activities that cause joy, in the month of Av we are asked to step back, refrain from those external stimulants of joy and instead, to find a more internal cause for being happy. During this month we don’t need a new car or a concert to make us happy, we can and should focus on the more personal and inner reasons for being happy. In the month of Av, don’t just suffice with happiness that emerges from new purchases and pleasure trips which bring about one level of happiness, rather increase your joy by uncovering the real source of happiness; our connection to G-d, Torah, family and life itself. It is this type of joy that diminishes the concealment of G-d brought about by the destruction of Jerusalem.

May we merit to see this happen even before these nine days are over.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

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