Simchah , joy, is one of the most essential elements of the chassidic way of life. Indeed, in the early stages of the Chassidic movement, before the name chassidim was coined, one of the temporary names used to refer to chassidim was di freilicha, meaning, “the happy ones.” How could you define and identify a chassid ? By seeing if he was b’simchah — happy and joyous.

The Rebbeim, the leaders of the Chassidic movement, would always emphasize the importance of happiness and would urge their followers to strive to eradicate all traces of sadness and depression. R. Shlomo of Karlin would say that depression is considered the threshold of all evil. On another occasion, R. Shlomo said that although the 365 negative commandments do not include a commandment not to be depressed, the damage that sadness and depression can cause is worse than the damage that any sin can cause.

The Baal Shem Tov1 would say that there are times, when the yetzer hora (the evil inclination) tries to persuade a person to commit a sin, that it does not care whether or not the person will actually sin. What it wants is that after sinning, the person will become depressed and overcome with sadness. In other words, the depression that follows the sin can cause more spiritual damage than the actual sin itself.

The Chassidic emphasis on joy has its roots in the teachings of the Kabbalah. In that vein, the AriZal (see glossary) notes that the Torah2 tells us that several harsh punishments will come “because you did not serve G‑d with happiness and a glad heart.” Other commentaries3 explain that the intent of the verse is that the punishments will come because the people did not serve G‑d in a time of pleasantness and joy. The AriZal explains,4 however, that the verse should be understood simply. What is the reason for the punishments that will befall our people? Their Divine service lacked simchah ; they lacked the vitality, energy, and connection to G‑d that joy contributes to Divine service.

When a person is depressed or sad, his energy is drained; he becomes weak and it is possible that his evil inclination will overpower him. By analogy: If two people are wrestling each other, and one of them is stronger, he will be able to overpower the weaker one. If, however, the stronger person is depressed and lacks vitality, and the weaker person is full of energy, the weaker person will be able to overcome the stronger person.5

To refer back to the analogy: When a person is happy and full of energy, he can overcome his evil inclination. But even if he is spiritually strong, when a person is sad and his energy is drained, his yetzer hora can easily overcome him.

One might ask: Why are such teachings identified with Chassidic thought? Seemingly, these concepts would be accepted by people from all sectors of Jewish thought. Indeed, if they were extended slightly, they could be understood and accepted by secular thinkers as well. So why are they identified with Chassidism?

The answer6 is that the theoretical basis that enables a person to translate these ideals from the abstract into the actual is inherent to Chassidism. Chassidism teaches that the vitality, and indeed the entire existence, of the world depends totally upon G‑d. Every element of creation is one with G‑d. Without this Divine energy, nothing could exist.

This leads to the appreciation of hashgachah pratis , Divine Providence. Everything that transpires, not only what happens to people, but also everything that happens to inanimate objects, comes as a direct result of G‑d’s will. Not only does every entity in the world exist by virtue of G‑d’s life-force; every event that occurs in the world takes place because G‑d causes it to happen.7

The awareness of these concepts leads directly to simchah. For a person who is aware that everything that happens to him is controlled by G‑d will surely be happy. Indeed, when a person lacks such happiness, he is implying, Heaven forbid, that what is happening is not connected to G‑d, or that G‑d is causing it to happen, but that, Heaven forbid, G‑d is not good.

This is a direct denial of G‑d. If one believes that G‑d is responsible for everything that happens, and believes that G‑d is good, then naturally everything that happens is good.

If a person got up and made a declaration that everything that happens does not come from G‑d, he would be denying G‑d’s oneness. Even when one refrains from making such statements, but acts in a way that implies so — for example, if he is sad — the implication is the same.

Indeed, actions speak louder than words. So by being sad, a person is denying the oneness of G‑d. He is denying the fact that everything in the world is constantly connected to G‑d, and everything that happens is controlled by Divine Providence.

This is why Chassidism , which stresses so clearly and so powerfully the connection between the creation and G‑d, places such an emphasis on simchah. In addition to the contribution of simchah to our Divine service — for as above, when a person is sad, he becomes weak and vulnerable, and his evil inclination can overpower him — something far larger than one’s individual self is involved. Happiness and its opposite depend on whether or not one is aware of G‑d’s oneness and His constant providence.

In this context, we can understand a unique concept taught by our Sages. Our Sages state8 that a person who loses his temper is considered as if he worshipped idols. What is the connection between losing one’s temper and idol worship?

Losing one’s temper is obviously undesirable. It reflects a lack of self-control; it is socially unacceptable; but how is it connected to idol worship? The answer is that when a person loses his temper, he, in essence, is denying that what has occurred is coming from G‑d. If he believed that everything that happens comes from G‑d, that G‑d is good and whatever G‑d does is good, there is no room for losing one’s temper, just as there is no room for depression and sadness.

A person once came to R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, and asked him, “Rebbe, our Sages tell us that we must bless G‑d when something good happens, and in the same way, we should bless G‑d when something negative happens.9 How can this be actualized?”

The Maggid of Mezeritch told him, “Go to my student, R. Zushya. He will explain it to you.”

When he found R. Zushya, by looking at his face and his clothing he could easily see that he had not had much to eat, and that he did not have the money to buy decent clothing. Everything about him bespoke privation, but his face radiated happiness. “This is surely a person who can answer my question,” he said to himself.

So he told R. Zushya that the Maggid had sent him to him to explain how a person could bless G‑d in the face of adversity.

R. Zushya looked at him in puzzlement. “I do not know how to answer this question,” he replied. “This question should be answered by someone who has suffered. I have never experienced suffering in my life.”

R. Zushya was telling him that everything that happens comes from G‑d and is controlled by Divine Providence. He knew clearly that G‑d is completely good. Therefore, it was as clear as day to him that everything that happens is good. And so, R. Zushya never experienced any suffering in his life.