I was twenty-one. I took my place at the long, Chabad Shabbat table and waited for the young rabbi to begin. From his mouth came the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard. A ringing, melancholy, yet somehow, joyful melody—most ancient and yet entirely familiar and relevant. My jaw dropped, my heart convulsed, and my eyes filled with tears. Beyond any doubt, I knew this is what I had been missing. My core filled to the brim. Something had been lost that I was unaware of, but I’d just found it again.
I was twenty-three. My good friends had just been catapulted up on their chairs, and other dear friends had joined hands with me to circle them in a joyful hora dance on their wedding day. Happy music swelled, familiar voices shouted, and the room began to vibrate with the beat of our feet. Remembering the Chabad house, I closed my eyes and hoped whatever-it-was would take me away. It did. My feet moved instinctively; I was no longer aware which friend’s hand I held except that it was the presence of another soul. Any pain in my body was put on hold; any unfulfilled desire in my heart was filled. All I felt was wind of our movement; all I saw was darkness; all I knew for certain was love.
I was thirty-two. I read that there had been a terror attack in Ofra on the eighth night of Hanukkah1 and a premature son had been born to a young couple wounded in the shooting. Only four days later the baby boy, Amiad Yisrael Ish-Ran, died. Almost immediately, family and friends filled the hospital room where the couple was recovering. They brought a guitar, drums, and their voices to comfort and sustain the parents. A short video on Facebook captured their unparalleled joy and moved me to tears, stirring a desire in my soul I could not identify. I searched for two years until I found that song and could play it myself, allowing my soul to ascend the way theirs had even in that most devastating of moments.
Joy in Jewish Thought
All of these experiences were brushes with joy. While joy is certainly something that evidences our eternal nature, God has allowed it to be very much a part of this world. Our sages believed that although joy is a part of the divine, it is accessible to everyone. In Hebrew, there are several words for “joy.” Simcha encompasses all of them, but there is also:
- chedva (happiness to be with others)
- ditza (related to dancing)
- gila (strong, transient sensation)
- hana’a (enjoying a specific thing)
- nachas (pride)
- osher (yearning)
- ora (illumination)
- pitzcha (bursting into song)
- ranan (overcome to cry or shout)
- rina (singing and shouting)
- sasson (unexpected happiness)
- t’rua (shout)
- tzahala (happy dancing).2
Joy Is a Yearning
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman writes that joy is the innermost, fleeting yet earnest desire for connection with God. Because we are currently in the physical world and consolidated into a mortal body, we “cannot contain such a degree of ecstasy” as would be the result of ultimate connection with God. However, in “a time to come, we will have bodies capable of sustaining the ecstasy of conscious union” with God.3
Meanwhile, Freeman suggests that the closest we can come to that experience is in acting out mitzvot (deeds in line with God’s instruction), and that in doing so, there is reward beyond anything we can imagine. In fact, he calls it returning to “the womb of all being.”4 Though Rabbi Freeman is not a Messianic Jew, his perspective has much in common with the teaching of Yeshua (Jesus). Yeshua taught that in living out the heart of God’s instructions, people will have spiritual rewards waiting for them in the world to come (Matthew 5:6-10, 11).
Because this type of joy comes only from God’s presence, this is why we can have it in both happiness and sorrow. Joy points us to the hope of ultimate renewal in the world to come. Joy occurs when something inside our inner being is awakened, and we are reminded of who we really are, from Whom we emanate, of Who God is, and of our need for Him. That desire spurs a recognition that a relationship with God opens up more for us than we can imagine. As King David wrote so long ago, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).
- Oren Liebermann, “Baby born prematurely after West Bank shooting dies,” CNN, December 12, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/12/middleeast/israel-west-bank-shooting-premature-baby/index.html.
- “Joy in Talmud Class #1,” Sefaria, accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/150240.3?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en.
- Tzvi Freeman, “Happiness Is Being There,” Chabad, accessed December 9, 2021, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1420700/jewish/Happiness-Is-Being-There.htm.