“Mitzvah gedolah lihyot b’simcha tamid.”
“It is a great mitzvah to always be happy.”
-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Earlier this week, I was speaking with a colleague who shared a story about a person who is on a quest to be happy. This person is reading books, reflecting on what is important to them, and working hard to discern what life choices will maximize their happiness. Listening to my colleague speak, this person’s quest for happiness seemed like a lot of effort. I found myself wondering if it would be successful.
Then I remembered the famous teaching of Rebbe Nachman, its words captured in a popular Hebrew song: it is a great mitzvah to always be happy. I wondered what exactly Rebbe Nachman was trying to say when he shared this teaching.
Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to sing, to dance, to be silly, and to celebrate each day. While many people have resonated with this idea over the years, it brought him some criticism from his peers at the time. Some saw this way of life as frivolous, even irresponsible. How can a person take Judaism seriously while living this way?
As I consider an authentic life in recovery, I too question Rebbe Nachman’s teaching. In my experience, one of the essential challenges of early recovery is learning to feel emotions openly, honestly, and authentically. In early recovery, we may be shocked to discover that we have a range of emotions. We are not just happy, not just sad, not just angry. We are also afraid, surprised, and sometimes disgusted. Further, we can feel several emotions at the same time: we can be happy and angry, or happy and sad, or any number of other combinations, and these emotions don’t cancel each other out. Instead, they coexist.
And, reflecting upon the events we may experience in active addiction, it doesn’t make sense to be only happy when things are not right in our lives. If we are committing crimes or having crimes committed against us, if we are perpetrators or victims of abuse, happiness is not an appropriate response. Even in families with mild or moderate dysfunction (that is, practically every family ever) happiness is not always called for.
As an example, let’s look at the family dynamics in this week’s parashah: Isaac and Rebekah seem to have a healthy enough marriage, but when their sons are born, things begin to change. Isaac favors the oldest, Esau, and Rebekah favors the youngest, Jacob. Of course the boys begin to fight, and as they grow up, the conflict intensifies until Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal the family blessing – the eldest son’s inheritance – as Isaac tries to give the blessing to Esau. Ultimately, Jacob escapes, fearing for his life.
In this family, would it make sense for everyone to be happy always? Of course not. The human experience is rich and varied, and in order to live an authentic life, we must experience a range of emotions, not just happiness.
As I continue to reflect upon and study Rebbe Nachman’s teaching, I learned to understand it in a different way, based upon a different interpretation of the meaning of the word “mitzvah.” The most common meaning of this word is “commandment,” yet it also means “connection.”
“It is a great connection to always be happy.”
Instead of understanding happiness as something we must strive for at all times, we can understand happiness as an experience that comes when we feel connected to something outside ourselves, something greater than ourselves. We can feel connected to a goal we are striving towards. We can feel connected to our friends, family, and community. And we can feel connected to a Higher Power of our own understanding.
The Rabbis who interpret Rebbe Nachman’s teaching this way focus on happiness arising within us as we feel a connection to God. As we grow into our spiritual connection, we learn we can remain aware that our Higher Power is always present in our lives. We learn that our Higher Power has a unique and special plan for our life; as our Founding Rabbi Mark Borovitz teaches, we must live our own script and no one else’s. Living in our own script, allowing ourselves to be cast as the leading character in the story of our lives, can help us be profoundly connected with the events of our lives as they unfold. It can help us feel a deep sense of happiness that remains even as we are also angry, sad, or afraid.
As we move into this Shabbat together, may we be open to the idea that deep happiness does not arise from a particular daily routine, a particular choice of career, or a particular set of human relationships. May we be blessed with the gift of happiness that comes from connection to community, to our authentic selves, and to a Higher Power of our own understanding.