Simchah and Song: The Language of the Soul
BY RABBI DORON PEREZ
The month of happiness
The month of Adar is the month of happiness, the only time when the Sages command us to be happy for an entire month. Across the globe, communities joyously sing the iconic words of the Sages: מִשֶּׁנִכְנָס אֲדָר מַרְבִּין בְּשִׂמְחָה, “one who enters the month of Adar should increase their happiness.”1
But how can the Rabbis command us to be happy for even one day – let alone for a full month? Is happiness not a transient emotion dependent upon a particular mood or circumstance? We are certainly happy at beautiful celebrations such as weddings (which we colloquially call a simchah), and on national holidays such as Purim we rejoice and celebrate. But is it really possible to be joyous all day, every day – for a month and beyond?2 How can the Rabbis require such a seemingly unattainable ongoing emotional state?
The Rebbe of Ruzhin3 offers a fascinating insight into happiness deriving from the very wording of this Talmudic teaching. The Rabbis say that when we enter the month of Adar we should increase our joy, and when we enter the month of Av we must decrease our joy. The language of the Rabbis implies that the Jewish people must constantly be in a state of simchah, all year long! We are merely commanded to increase or decrease our constant joy at different points throughout the year.
In other words, the Rebbe is calling for a paradigm shift, offering a critical insight into the nature of happiness itself. Simchah is neither a transient emotion nor a fleeting feeling, but rather a state of being. Happiness is meant to be our ‘default position’; it is the basic spiritual frequency of inspired G-dly living. Yes, the intensity of our simchah will increase or decrease throughout the year as we experience the natural ups and downs of life. But simchah should be the constant spiritual undercurrent of life; it is a sign of being in tune with our spiritual mission.4
If the laws and commandments of the Torah are the body of Judaism, then simchah, happiness, is its soul.
Our relationship with Hashem is far broader than the observance of religious law; it is a celebration of spiritual life. It is living with an inner sense of happiness and contentment and constantly rejoicing over the privilege of living in G-d’s world and in His presence. This is the meaning of עֲבוֹדַת ה’ בְּשִׂמְחָה, of serving Hashem with joie de vivre and profound joy.
Simchah as song
All these curses befell you… since you did not serve Hashem your G-d with happiness and with gladness of heart.5
Incredibly, the Torah states that the curses and punishments that befall the people of Israel are a direct result of serving G-d without simchah. The scrupulous observance of Torah and mitzvot is not enough. Divine service devoid of joy is a foreign form of worship that totally misses the mark and with drastic consequences.
If Judaism’s soul is simchah, then the language of the soul is song and music. Remarkably, the Rabbis interpret this specific verse as the source for song and music as an integral part of the עֲבוֹדַת הַמִּקְדָּשׁ, the daily service of the Temple. The Talmud6 argues that this verse is clearly speaking about the service of G-d, and since our service of G-d is primarily performed in the Temple, the verse must be referring to the Temple service. And since the most overt expression of happiness and gladness of heart is music and song, this must be the deeper meaning of the verse – that the Temple service must be accompanied by music and song.
Indeed, the korban tamid, the daily communal sacrifice brought every morning and afternoon, had to be accompanied by the beautiful singing of a choir of Levites, who would sing the psalm of the day.7 There is a dispute amongst the Rabbis as to whether the biblical requirement of song in the Temple service can be fulfilled with vocal singing, or whether musical instruments are also required by the Torah. In practice, the Levite choir was accompanied by a musical ensemble of multiple musicians playing five different instruments8, making music an intrinsic part of the Divine service.
A symbol of humanity
Music is an indispensable part of spiritual life. A universal art form present in human culture and society since time immemorial, it is woven into our very existence as human beings. The ancients, in early hieroglyphics, already depicted song and musical instruments, and in the very first parasha in the Torah we encounter music. Yuval, a descendant of Cain, was the first person to תֹּפֵשׂ כִּנּוֹר וְעוּגָב, “play the lyre and the flute.”9 The Sages explain that Yuval was the inventor of musical instruments.10
Music is one of the most distinct creations and features of the human spirit. Vocal or instrumental, music uplifts our spirit and stirs our soul. What other medium gives expression to the range and depth of human emotions the way music does? It is somehow able to evoke past memories, experiences, feelings and sentiments with an unparalleled power and potency. In unique moments, singing, playing and listening to music can be a deeply transformative experience.
The Vilna Gaon famously extolled the great virtues of music, believing that the mystical secrets of spiritual life can only be unlocked through the wisdom of music.11 Music is the most spiritual and esoteric of all human art. Both the visual arts – such as drawing, sculpting and painting – and literature portray the objects and events of our physical world. Music, however, reaches beyond this world. The notes emanating from vocal cords or instruments do not exist in this world; they are ethereal, almost metaphysical creations.12 As though borrowed from another world, they create a transcendental and heavenly experience. Mind and imagination, heart and soul, mystically join together this world and the next.
In this, the happiest of months, may we increase our joy; may the great gift of music – its rhythms, melodies and harmonies – unlock our deepest spiritual yearnings and enhance our daily celebration of the privilege of living in G-d’s presence. May these months of redemption evoke a human and Divine transformation through which we will once again merit to see כֹּהֲנִים בַּעֲבוֹדָתָם וּלְוִיִּים בְּשִׁירָם – the priestly Temple service and the stirring, holy and mystical melodies of the Levites.
1 Ta’anit 29a.
2 Rashi explains that simchah is actually required for two months, beginning with Adar and continuing throughout Nissan as well, as both are months of redemption.
3 Rabbi Yisrael Friedman (1796–1850) was the one and only Rebbe of Ruzhin.
4 See Malbim, Yeshayahu 35:1, and my “Israel – the Happiest Place in the World”, HaMizrachi Vol. 2, No. 5.
5 Devarim 28:45–47.
6 Arachin 11a.
7 Tamid 7:4.
8 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, the Laws of the Vessels of the Temple 3:2–4.
9 Bereishit 4:21
10 Midrash HaGadol p.126
11 Cited by Rabbi Yisrael of Shklov, Introduction to Pe’at Hashulchan.
12 Dr. Daniel Shalit, Yodea Nagen, p. 41.
Rabbi Doron Perez is the Executive Chairman of World Mizrachi.