Parashah (portion) Tzav – The Joy of the Chasidic Masters
Leviticus 6:1 – 18:36

The value/middah for the month of March which our community selected is that of “Joy.” Joy is subjective as–being a feeling–it is experienced through each of us differently. The dictionary describes joy as, “the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure, festive gaiety or elation.” Joy, it seems, is a temporary state of consciousness which we are blessed to experience when the right inner and outer circumstances are present. Though we may value these experiences, such emotional highs are not, usually, what one would consider a life-value, a middah, as we would consider “service,” for example, to be a value.

Why is it then that our tradition has emphasized joy–translated as simchah in Hebrew–as a pillar of spiritual practice? The Chasidic masters made joy the cornerstone of their form of worship. Music, dance, singing, shouting, hand clapping and even turning cartwheels were all part of the early ecstatic Chasidic tradition of the 1700’s. What was their purpose? Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov who founded Chasidism, taught: “Through gloominess and sadness a man can forget who he really is. Therefore it is necessary to be continuously in a state of joy.”

Joy, for the Chasidim, was not a temporary elated state to be experienced randomly when the proper conditions allowed. Joy was, for them, a deep and profound moment-to-moment spiritual practice. The Chasidic masters understood that sadness is a consequence of our identification with the separate sense of self, with the ego; and that joy is a pathway to remember the Oneness of Being that we always are. Our rabbis did not, however, have as a mantra: “Don’t worry, be happy!” They did not espouse a practice of phony, forced, unnatural cheerfulness, which they saw as another expression of ego. Rather, they sought to awaken to the joy that is beyond the ego, in the realization and apprehension of the Divine in everything and everyone, and in the profound inner knowing that their lives were the expression of–and utterly dedicated to–the Holy One of Being. It is this kind of radiant inner joy which, in fact, outshines the separate ego in its Divine brightness. Joy is not seen as a means to uplift the ego; but as a fiery practice through which the ego is burnt up and one awakens to one’s Divine Self.

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron is ordained by Moses. This is the first time that Aaron dons the priestly garments that have been so carefully described at the end of the book of Exodus. One can feel in the text the intensity of the scene as Aaron dedicates his and his sons’ lives to the service of the Divine. One can only imagine the energies of pure joy coursing through their bodies as they are dressed and consecrated by Moses. In the climactic moment of their ordination ceremony a ram is offered as a sacrifice. The Torah recalls: “This was an ordination offering for a pleasing scent; it was an offering by fire to the Eternal.” [Lev. 8:28] We can view this offering by fire as symbolic of the surrender and burning up of their egos on the altar of the unfathomable inner joy (in the Chasidic sense of the term) that such a self-dedication brought about.

The Chasidic practice of Joy is one which allows the heart to open; one which helps us move beyond our separate sense of self and remember the One we are. It is a practice which not only benefits us personally but benefits those around us too as Joy is a highly contagious energy. And, if we are to let our separate egos be consumed on the way to awakening, then we might as well do it joyfully.

© 2011 Rabbi Olivier BenHaim, All rights reserved.