In this week’s Parsha, we are told, “USemachtem Lifnei Hashem Elokeichem Shiv’at Yamim,” “And you shall rejoice before Hashem for seven days.” This Pasuk is speaking particularly about the holiday of Sukkot, but Chazal understand this and other similar sentences to teach us that there is a commandment to rejoice and be happy on every Yom Tov.
Let us focus on the beginning of this Pasuk. What does the word USemachtem, “and you shall rejoice,” truly mean? Many people have their own definitions of happiness, some contrary to the thinking of our holy Torah. I would like to present a Torah outlook (or perhaps several outlooks) on happiness.
The Rambam writes about Purim (Hilchot Megilah 2:17) that we should spend more money for Matanot LeEvyonim than we do for our Purim meal or for Mishloach Manot. He explains “the reason for this is that there is no greater joy than gladdening the hearts of the poor.” The Rambam thus expresses a completely different definition of happiness from what we would have thought ourselves: true happiness means making those who are less fortunate than us feel happy.
The Talmud in Masechet Pesachim (109a) has another definition of Simcha on Yom Tov. It states that different people become happy because of different things. The Talmud asks, “What makes children happy?” Its answer, “parched grain and nuts,” can be explained in a modern context as sweets and toys. “What makes women happy? New clothing.” (I have heard shoes and jewelry as well.) “What makes men happy? Eating meat and drinking wine.” These statements of the Talmud clearly show that physical pleasures can play a role in Simcha. This is not absolute, however, as evidenced by a Machloket Rishonim about Simcha. Tosafot (Moed Katan 14b s.v. Asei) argue that we do not fulfill the Mitzvah of Simcha on a Torah level since we do not have the Korban Shelamim (Rambam, Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17, disagrees). Tosafot’s opinion demonstrates that although we can achieve Simchat Yom Tov through personal physical pleasure, this is true only as long as it is done for the holy purpose of serving Hashem on Yom Tov.
The Talmud also says that every Yom Tov is half for Hashem and half for us, except for Shavuot, which is entirely for us. This seems to be providing another idea of Simcha, namely that accepting the Torah and fulfilling it as we do on Shavuot allows us to achieve true joy.
Many years ago, when I was a student at RIETS, Rav Dovid Lipshitz ZT”L would hang up signs around the Yeshiva as Rosh Chodesh Adar approached. The signs read, “MiSheNichnas Adar Marbin BeSimcha,” “When the month of Adar begins, we must increase our joy,” followed by “Ein Simcha Ela Torah,” “There is no joy in this world except for learning Torah.” Therefore, “MiSheNichnas Adar Marbin BeTorah,” “When Adar arrives, we must increase our learning of Torah.” This, too, shows the definition of Simcha to be studying Torah and coming close to Hashem.
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, may we fulfill the Mitzvah of Simcha by helping those who are less fortunate, enjoying our festive meals, and of course learning Torah during Zeman Matan Torateinu.