There is No Simchah in the Singular

Posted on August 26, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Fun comes in many forms. One can have fun by playing a game, riding a bike, or watching a movie. One can have fun alone or with others. Everyone deserves and needs to have fun. But, as a recent New York Times article notes, over the last two years, with us stuck at home and fearful for our physical health, fun has been in short supply.

While fun may have taken a hit during this time, happiness has remained relatively stable. This is the conclusion of an expansive study known as the World Happiness Report. Over the last 10 years, a network of researchers has studied the state of happiness around the world and has produced a comprehensive annual report, complete with an index that ranks the world’s nations by the degree of their people’s happiness. The findings are interesting. Of the 146 countries listed, Finland ranks first, followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. The US ranks sixteenth. Israel ranks ninth, while its troubled neighbor Lebanon ranks next to last, followed only by Afghanistan, whose people are the least happy in the world. Russia ranks eightieth.

More interesting than the rankings are the trends. Despite the worry and stress of living through a pandemic, it seems overall life satisfaction has not declined. And the study reveals the likely reason.

Over the last few years there has been a global upsurge in benevolence — up almost 25% since the pandemic began. And it is broadly felt — by those who have given, by those who have received, and by those who have observed acts of kindness and generosity. “In every global region,” notes the report, “there have been large increases in the proportion of people who give money to charity, help strangers, and do voluntary work….” At a time when we would reasonably expect levels of happiness to decline, hard data indicate that they have remained stable, thanks to human kindness and generosity.

This confirms something we have known since ancient days. We can have fun alone, but true happiness comes from human interaction, from kindness and benevolence — in short, from chesed. In a brilliant commentary on this week’s parashah, Re’eih, the late great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks relates a story that drives home this lesson, one he heard during his first visit to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, in 1968.

A man had written to the Rebbe in roughly these terms: “I am depressed. I am lonely. I feel that life is meaningless. I try to pray, but the words do not come. I keep [the] mitzvot but find no peace of mind. I need the Rebbe’s help.” The Rebbe sent a brilliant reply without using a single word. He simply circled the first word of every sentence and sent the letter back. The word in each case was “I.”

Human life in all its fullness is not a solitary pursuit. We need each other to be whole. We are relational creatures who flourish when we are connected to others. We blossom in the light of love. And we find our greatest happiness in the context of relationships and caring community.

Sacks notes that there is a surprising repetition of a key word in Parashat Re’eih, a word that appears only once in each of the first four books of the Torah but 12 times in the Book of Deuteronomy, seven of them in this parashah. That word is simchah — joy.

And here is the interesting thing about simchah. It always describes a collective experience. There is no simchah in the singular. Every one of the seven references to simchah in this parashah describes a communal celebration that includes the extended family of men, women, and children, together with the Levite, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

There are many ways to have fun, on our own and with others. And there are many factors that contribute to achieving happiness. But simchah, joy, as understood by our tradition and experienced by our people over the ages, is achieved by joining together with others in sacred celebration.

Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Blessings are not measured by how much we own or earn or spend or possess but by how much we share. Simchah is the mark of a sacred society. It is a place of collective joy.”

As we begin the new month of Elul and enter the holy day season, may we be blessed to renew our fellowship and share the warm embrace of our temple family b’simchah, in joy and celebration.

The results are in, and the blessed truth is clear. The more we come together, the more we share and care for one another, the happier we’ll be.

Shabbat shalom and chodesh tov,

Rabbi Arnie Gluck