To Be Alive

It's a first for Live and Learn CH! In this blog series, we're taking a look at happiness from the clearest viewpoint - Chassidus.


If you type in "how to be" on Google, the first search suggestion is "how to be happy." We all crave happiness, but really having it is easier said then done.


Follow this series to learn:

What is true joy?

How can I be truly happy?

What can I accomplish when I'm truly happy?

and lots more!

Rabbi Moshe Veber z”l (1914–2000), was a Chabad chassid who lived in Israel. He was known for initiating the tefillin booth at the Kosel. They share a teaching of Reb Moshe that he said one Pesach after Tefilas Tal. In this tefilla, we say, “L’chaim v’lo l’maves,” asking Hashem to bless us with “life and not with death.” Reb Moshe wondered about the apparent repetition—if we ask for life, isn’t it understood that we don’t want death? He would explain that there is a major message to be found in this brachah.


A person who keeps Torah and mitzvos without joy may clinically not be “dead,” but that person is far from alive. To be alive, a person has to infuse joy in his or her actions, words, and thoughts. It is not enough, he explained, to settle for not being dead; we need to ask Hashem to help us live life with joy and vitality.


Simchah is an important aspect of serving Hashem and living a meaningful life. “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah—serve Hashem with joy” is a directive for life. But what is joy? How does one achieve it?


There is a story about a king who was seriously ill. All the physicians despaired of curing him. One healer offered a novel remedy: if the king would put on the shirt of a person who is absolutely happy, then the king would be healed. This suggestion sounded outlandish to the other physicians, yet the king’s condition was so tenuous that they agreed to try this plan. The royal advisors drafted a list of potential candidates, and 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. The messengers 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 industries 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 was not experiencing true happiness.


Then they raced to the country’s most famous and highest paid athlete. “Are you happy?” they asked him.


“Yes,” he answered.


“Absolutely happy?”


And there he began to falter, “Well, I am getting older, I worry about the younger competition, my contract is up, and my agent wants me to hold out for a sweeter deal. . .” he trailed off. They saw that he also did not know what absolute happiness meant. Next, he went to the country’s education minister, and to its top actor, and they found similar responses when they pressed.


The messengers 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 arduous and unsuccessful journey, they decided it was time to go back home; they realized that they could not find anyone who knows what absolute happiness is. On their way home, shortly before they approached the palace, they heard a joyous melody. Someone was singing a lively tune in a loud voice, seeming oblivious to his surroundings, and they sensed that he was truly happy.

They turned their horses in the direction of the music, and they saw a drunken man, reeling back and forth, a huge smile on his face, singing a lively tune on the top of his voice.


“Are you happy?” they asked him.


“I am the happiest person in the world,” he answered.


“Absolutely happy?”


“Yes. I have not a care in the world.”


And they saw that it was true. He did not worry; he had no anxieties or fears. They realized that this was the man they were looking for. They told him, “Sir, we desperately need your help. Our king is deathly ill, and the doctors said that his only hope is to put on the shirt of a happy man. 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 am so poor that I do not even own a shirt!”


What is the point of this story? On one hand, it demonstrates that many people are so concerned with their fame, position, and possessions that they can never really let loose and experience pure joy. Self-concern and ego tie people down and prevent them from experiencing real happiness.


But beneath the surface, there may be an even deeper message. The happy person in this story has no purpose, and no goal in life; he has nothing that he is working for, and no serious goal in life. 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. As carefree as he may seem, he is not truly happy.

So what is real happiness? Are we expected to be happy? Is it a command, or an attitude, a way of life? Is it something to pursue, or a by-product of our choice?


“Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah” is not a catchphrase; it is a command, a mandate. Joy is not the automatic smile that people put on their face in public; it is something deeper. It takes intentionality to become joyous. Life brings many challenges, and it is easy to slip into feeling frightened, sad, anxious, or depressed. Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah reminds us that we should not fall victim to these negative emotions; they are the tools of the yetzer hara, and the way to combat these feelings is with joy. Join me next time to discuss some ideas that will help keep us focused on finding joy.

Esther Kosofsky is a Jewish educator, writer and lecturer. She served as director of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Resource Center for Jewish Education. Esther and her husband Rabbi Noach Kosofsky have been emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Western Massachusetts since 1984. Her articles have appeared on Chabad.org and she is the author of The Secret of Carlos Romanus.