In this week’s Parashah, we are told, “USemachtem Lifnei Hashem Elokeichem Shiv’at Yamim,” “And you shall rejoice before Hashem for seven days.”(Vayikra 23:40) This Pasuk is speaking particularly about the holiday of Sukkot, but Chazal learn 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.
Rambam writes (Hilchot Megilah 2:17) that on Purim we should spend more money on Matanot LeEvyonim than on our Purim meal or Mishloach Manot. He explains “the reason for this is that there is no greater joy than gladdening the hearts of the poor.” 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 (Pesachim 109a) presents another definition of Simchah on Yom Tov: that different people achieve happiness from 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 Simchah. This is not absolute, however, as evidenced by a dispute among the Rishonim about Simchah. Tosafot (Moed Katan 14b s.v. Asei) argue that we do not fulfill the Mitzvah of Simchah on a Torah level since we do not offer the sacrifice known as 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 only true if we have the mindset of serving Hashem on Yom Tov.
The Talmud (Pesachim 68b) also states that half of every Yom Tov is designated for Hashem while half of it is designated for us, except for Shavuot, which is entirely designated for us. This seems to be providing another idea of Simchah, 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 Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Rav Dovid Lipshitz zt”l posted 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 Simchah is studying Torah and coming close to Hashem.
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot, may we fulfill the Mitzvah of Simchah by helping those who are less fortunate, enjoying our festive meals, and of course learning Torah during Zeman Matan Torateinu.