is told about a king who was once seriously ill. All the physicians despaired of curing him. One healer offered a remedy: If the king would put on the shirt of a person who is absolutely happy, then the king would be healed.
Immediately, riders were dispatched all over the country to look for a person who is absolutely happy and bring his shirt back to the king. First they went to the richest person in the country. They asked him, "Are you happy?"
He answered: "Of course. I am the richest person in the country."
"But are you absolutely happy?"
He began to hesitate. "Absolute is a difficult term. How can I be absolutely happy? I always have to protect my position. Take, for example, the businessman in the north. His concerns have been thriving and I am worried about the possibility of competition. And I've had a setback or two recently . . . ."
The messengers left him in the middle of his thoughts. They saw that despite his wealth he was worried, and he did not know what true happiness was.
Then they ran to the person who was the country's leading educational figure. "Are you happy?" they asked him. "Yes," he answered. "Absolutely happy?" And there he began to hem and haw. He told them about his unfulfilled desires and how he feels threatened by certain people. And they saw that he also did not know what absolute happiness meant.
And they went from person to person and it was always the same story. Some people were outwardly happy, and some were inwardly happy. But no one was absolutely happy. Beneath the surface, everyone was burdened by various worries, concerns and anxieties.
After this long and unsuccessful journey, they decided it was time to go back home; they realized that they could not find anyone who knew what absolute happiness is. On their way home, shortly before they approached the palace, they heard a joyous melody. A person was singing freely, and they sensed that he was really happy.
They turned their horses in the direction of the song and they saw a drunken man, reeling back and forth with a huge smile on his face. "Are you happy," they asked him. "I am the happiest person in the world," he answered. "Absolutely happy?" "Yes. I have not a care on my mind."
And they saw that it was true. He did not worry; he had no anxieties nor fears. They realized that this was the man they were looking for. They told him, "Sir, we need your shirt. The king is sick, but the healer said that if he puts on the shirt of a happy man, he will be healed. Lend us your shirt for a short while. We promise that you will be amply rewarded."
The man replied, "I would be happy to help the king, and I do not need his rewards. But there is one problem. I do not own a shirt."
The point of the story is: because he does not own a shirt - that is why he is the happiest person in the world.
On the one hand, the story looks good. It tells you that many of us are so concerned with who we are and what we have that we can never really let loose and be happy. Our self-concern ties us down and prevents us from experiencing real happiness.
There is a pithy truth to this message. But beneath the surface, there is something negative here. This person has nothing, no purpose, no goal in life, nothing that he is working for, nothing to look forward to. It is true that he has nothing holding him back from being happy. But he also has no genuine source of happiness; his life is empty.
When a person has a goal to achieve - be it a self-oriented goal like making money or a more altruistic goal like teaching or helping others - he will define his happiness in terms of his achievement of his goal. There are times when he will be successful, and other times when he will fail. Since life has its ups and downs, he will never be absolutely happy. Why does the drunkard in our story think that he is so happy? Because he has absolutely nothing at all that bothers him. But that is tragic, not happy.
There has never been an animal who has gone to a psychologist and complained that he feels unfulfilled, that he has not accomplished enough. An animal does not think like that. Take a dog: he gets up in the morning, barks a little, rolls around on his back, runs around, eats some food, goes to sleep, plays, sleeps again, and gets up for more the next day. This goes on year after year. It is fine for a dog; his nature does not demand anything more of him. He will never feel unfulfilled.
A human being, however, is different. He has a brain and a soul, and unless he taps their potential he will never be satisfied. The drunk feels happy because he has no shirt, meaning he has nothing to himself. But this is not real happiness. In Hebrew, we call this holelus (frivolity), not simchah (joy). It is an animal form of satisfaction, where the person does not live up to his potential.
Can we combine simchah and responsibility? Is it possible to have purpose and direction, and at the same time to let loose and feel free?
Yes. This is the type of happiness that comes from kabbalas ol, accepting G-d's yoke. On the one hand, a person lets go of his self-consciousness, but he does not sink into emptiness; he connects to a force that is much higher than himself. Both the letting go and the connection are sources of simchah.
Let us return to the analogy used in the story. Happiness comes from "not having a shirt of your own"; being able to rise above one's self-concerns. The question is, however, does one, like the drunkard, walk around naked - i.e., discard one's human potential? Or does one - as does a master of kabbalas ol - continue wearing the shirt, but transfer ownership of it to G-d?
The drunkard's happiness is destructive; it ruins his ability to build a life for himself and the people close to him. True joy involves self-transcendence - and more than that, the establishment of a connection to one's inner G-dly core. This builds personal strength. A person who experiences real happiness grows and becomes able to overcome personal limitations that had previously hampered him. He is open and friendly with others, and imbues them with joy as well. He radiates trust in G-d and appreciation for all the good He grants us.
In other words, there is a type of joy that destroys a person, and there is a type of joy that makes a person even stronger than he was before. When a person lets go of himself without direction, it is destructive. Imagine taking your hands off the steering wheel while speeding down a busy highway. The path of life requires as much attention as does any road.
But then there are times where we transfer control, like a flyer going into automatic pilot. Although we have taken our hands off the wheel, we have not stopped thinking about the direction of the flight. It is just that Someone else is doing the steering. And taking our hands off the wheel is not a proper analogy, because in actual life, our hands are on the wheel; we must take responsibility for our lives. And yet, through observing the Torah and its mitzvos, we follow a lifestyle that leads to self-transcendence.
A person who does not believe in G-d and does not recognize the G-dly element within his being can never experience true joy. He is either wrapped up in himself or living a life of emptiness. He has no other alternative because he is not aware of anything beyond his own self.
When, by contrast, a person recognizes G-d and realizes that G-d lies at the core of his own being, he can truly let go of himself. And then he can feel genuine happiness.
Holelus means letting go by becoming less than what one really is. The person forgets about himself and about anything that has meaning, content and purpose. In the extreme, this means becoming drunk, or taking drugs that rob one of control. But it has far more common expressions. A person thinks that the only way he can be happy is by forgetting about everything but the sensory pleasure he is receiving at the time. He lives for the moment.
This can be very destructive, for when a person ignores responsibility, he is likely to hurt himself, his family and the people around him.
Simchah, joy, also involves letting go, but it is a very different type of letting go. One does not lose control - one transfers control. When a person experiences true joy, he lets go of himself, but he connects to something higher, G-d. He lets go of his petty ego and makes it possible for a dimension of his identity that is far deeper and far truer to surface.
This is one of the reasons simchah is considered a high level of Divine service. For this selfless connection with G-d - over and above all the advantages one gains by avoiding depression - is a goal for which we should all strive.
That is what Shabbos and the holidays are all about. On these days, we rise above all humdrum worldly experience and sense true joy.
Have you ever seen people singing and dancing for hours and hours on Simchas Torah? The people who are celebrating are humans, not angels. They each have their own array of worries and troubles. But on Simchas Torah they are not concerned with these matters at all. They are not thinking of themselves. As they sing and dance, they are connecting to a deeper dimension that exists within their being. That is where the simchah comes from.
The Previous Rebbe used to say that on Simchas Torah, the Torah itself wants to dance. However, since a Torah scroll has no feet, the Jews must function as its feet and carry it around the reader's platform.
This analogy enables us to understand why a person can be so happy on Simchas Torah. Because he has gone beyond his own identity, he is no more than the Torah's feet, and he can rejoice with complete abandon. And yet, his life will be filled with the meaning and purpose that stems from the Torah he is carrying.
- (Back to text) See Sefer HaMaamarim 5710, p. 237ff.
- (Back to text) Sefer HaSichos 5704, p. 36.