“Red eyed from wine, and white toothed from milk.” [49:12]
In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.
It is interesting that despite the diversity of the English language, it lacks a word corresponding to “mesameyach” — a verb whose root is “simcha,” meaning happiness or gladness. The best English translation would be to “make happy,” which sounds like manufacturing an emotion.
In many ways, “happiness” really isn’t an accurate translation for “simcha.” In Rabbinic sources we see a differentiation between “sasson,” rejoicing, and “simcha.” If you hear a comedian make jokes, then you may be happy for little while. You may have a great time at a party, or on vacation. None of these, however, give a person simcha, a far deeper level of spiritual and psychological satisfaction.
We all know people who — at least to the best of our knowledge — possess this satisfied well-being called “simcha.” But we fail to think of it as something to give. When we think about helping others, we are more likely to think of fighting famine in Africa than brightening our neighbors’ lives with a smile and a caring word.
Yet there is no question that it is a critical ingredient in our lives. All physicians agree that a positive attitude is powerful medicine, dramatically improving survival rates of patients who are otherwise similar. In the army they call it morale, and consider it a vital component of troop readiness.
It seems clear that compared to earlier generations, we have advanced medicine, dramatically improved technology, and much lower morale. We may have more gadgets “to make life easier” than ever before, but one of the great growth industries of the last 50 years has been psychology. And this is not to say that psychiatrists and psychologists know the answers for our malaise — they themselves are a “special at-risk population” for suicide. They spend their days listening to other people’s problems, and then go home to confront their own.
People spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually on “entertainment” in order to escape the stress and depression of their daily lives. But our entertainers, be they sports figures, actors or musicians, are extraordinarily likely to abuse drugs or, especially in the latter two cases, commit suicide.
What is going on? Why are our entertainers not the happiest of people? Perhaps it is because they are confronted with the shallowness of our escapism. They, more than others, see behind the scenes and realize that it is a mere facade.
Psalm 19 says “The Laws of G-d are straight, delighting the heart.” When a person studies Torah, learns a new insight, or hears an inspiring class, the he or she is happier — often immediately, visibly so, but yet it is lasting. A person carries away a true lesson for life, not a few jokes which dissipate once co-workers and friends know the punchline.
In general, studies have demonstrated that people who self-identify as “religious” are happier, less stressed, and have greater longevity. But in Israel, physicians are anxious to unearth why the inhabitants of even an impoverished religious neighborhood like Meah Shearim are vastly less likely to die of cardiac failure. With all due respect to the doctors who suggested something about the effect of the warm waters of the Mikvah (ritual bath), they are unlikely to discover an appropriate physical factor to explain this phenomenon.
The Torah gives true simcha. A person immersed in Torah and Torah thought possesses a repository of happiness which not only fills his or her life, but can be shared with others. Such a person is able to be greater than the milkman. Those who study Torah often make the best therapists, because they have deep, spiritual insights to offer, reaching into eternal Jewish wisdom for an understanding of human nature. And because they have “stocked up” on happiness, troubles shared by others cannot overwhelm and defeat them.
But the Torah is for everyone, and affects everyone. In Psalm 119, King David wrote, “had your Torah not been my comfort, I would have perished in my affliction.” At the lowest of times, Jews for thousands of years have turned to Torah for the spiritual fortitude and well-being which our generation so sorely needs.
By learning Torah, we can not only help ourselves, but become a source of support and simcha in the lives of others!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
This week’s class is dedicated to the speedy healing of Azriel Yitzchak ben Chaya Gitel.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org.