By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg
Chofetz Chaim Torah Center
One day during this past summer, I had to once again call one of my associates and reschedule an important meeting, due to my need to attend another levayah. My associate made a comment in that phone call that really caught my attention. He said, “Rabbi Ginzberg, you seem to be going lately to a lot of levayos.”
It was this pithy comment that was constantly in my head during davening on the Yomim Nora’im. This realization that there had been so many levayos of late of people whom I not only greatly admired, but learned so much from as well. I repeated over and over again the tefillah
of “Tichleh shanah v’kileloseha, tacheil shanah u’birchoseha.” Alas it was not to be, as it is Monday morning and I have just returned from yet another levayah of another wonderful Yid whom I have known for close to forty years—Rabbi Avrohom Portal, z’l—less than 48 hours after Yom Kippur.
You may be wondering why I am writing about levayos now, as we are soon entering the wonderful yom tov of Sukkos that we refer to as “Z’man Simchaseinu.” What does referencing these levayos have to do with simcha? I believe it has a lot to do with it.
Permit me to explain.
The Torah commands us to serve Hashem with simcha (in a state of joy) and we find in the seforim that this commandment is a “mitzvah gedolah”; we are all familiar with the refrain “mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha tamid.” This is no simple task. Life brings with it a long list of trials and tribulations, some fleeting and some lasting. Some have it easier, and others have it harder, but we all have something that we need to deal with that causes us pain. In these days of “Ikvisa d’Meshicha” (the days preceding the coming of Mashiach) our trials and tribulations have magnified, exactly the way the last mishnah in Maseches Sota told us it will be. Yet, we are required to reach down to the depths of our neshamos, through the pain, and bring up feelings of simcha to the forefront. That is called simchas ha’chayim.
As I think of some of the losses of people that I admired so in the last few months in our Five Towns Community, I find one common thread between all of them and that is simchas ha’chayim.
There were three wonderful Yidden, all of whom I am so proud to have been considered a close friend of. They all lived within a mile of each other, and they ranged in age from the seventies to almost 100. They lived very different lives and I don’t believe any of them interacted with each other, but they shared together a very special middah: they all had tremendous simchas ha’chayim, despite all having had very difficult years.
Dr. Jacob Mosak, z’l, was a brilliant talmid chacham and world-famous economist. His life accomplishments would require a full-sized biography; he was one of the top world economists for the UN and the U.S. State Department, serving several White House administrations over decades, and he was equally comfortable with the pages of the Gemara, Midrash, and Tanach. He passed away this summer just shy of his 100th birthday. He talked to me often of the difficulties he faced in his life, the loss of his daughter, his granddaughter, and his son, who was stricken with a severe stroke at a young age. Yet if someone would meet him for just a few brief moments, it was impossible not to be swept up with his infectious smile and simchas ha’chayim. I don’t believe one week would go by in the more than a decade that I knew him that he wouldn’t burst forth with words of shevach and hodaah to Hashem for such a wonderful life.
Another dear friend was Reb Leibel Zisman, z’l, a man so full of life and simcha that it was contagious. I had the good fortune of somehow bumping into him every few days. Whether on the local streets, at restaurants, at the physical therapist that we both frequented, on the boardwalk in Miami, or in the streets of Yerushalayim, no matter where it was or when it was, it was his simchas ha’chayim that burst forth from him.
It was several years ago when my dear chaver—his son-in-law Reb Dovid Portal—hosted a Friday-night Simchas Beis HaSho’eiva in his sukkah, that I first got a small glimpse of the Gehinnom that Reb Leibel went through in his teen years during WWII. He was a guest speaker for the event (as he often was) and he began to share some of his war experiences and shared the intense pain of seeing his parents and siblings for the last time. Only he and one older brother (may he be zocheh to arichus yamim) survived. He spoke of the camps, the marches, the countless times he was at death’s door. However, he didn’t just survive it all, he had such a forceful simchas ha’chayim that I and many others were uplifted by it. In our last encounter, on the very morning of the terrible accident that would later claim his life, he gave me one of his famous bear hugs with the parting words “we should meet at simchos.”
Another dear friend who just passed away recently was not only a good friend, he was also my attorney and advisor. A brilliant attorney and litigator, it was inspiring to watch Jacob Heller, z’l, in action. He would sit quietly at the head of the long table in his office, quietly listening to the discussions around him, saying very little while jotting brief notes in his ever present legal pad. He would sit pensively for a few moments and then began to articulate his absolutely brilliant strategy on how to best address the issue at hand.
We would have long discussions, and each time he would express his appreciation for the wonderful life that Hashem granted him, despite the challenges he faced along the way. Though he was a quiet, reserved and dignified individual, he had a serenity that defined as well his simchas ha’chayim.
These three role models demonstrated how a Yid could transcend the trials and tribulations of life and live with simchas ha’chayim.
An elderly chassid shared with me a beautiful thought this past summer (I believe he quoted this from a chassidic sefer). Chazal tell us that “mishenichnas Av, mema’atin b’simcha”: when the month of Av arrives, we reduce our level of simcha. Now we know that the yetzer ha’ra works very diligently to have us do aveiros, and to violate every mitzvah in the Torah. So why don’t we find everyone walking around the entire month of Av with great simcha? Why doesn’t the yetzer ha’ra make sure that we all violate this halachah, like he tries to do with all the other mitzvos in our lives?
He answered, because the Sattan is so afraid to have a Yid be b’simcha, knowing full well what could be accomplished. The Sattan would rather let all the Jews fulfill this mitzvah of “minimizing simcha in the month of Av,” than bring about the alternative of having a Yid enjoy simchas ha’chayim, which can bring a Yid to the highest level of avodas Hashem.
Rav Chaim Vital, zt’l, the primary disciple of the Arizal, testified that his famous rebbe explained that the only reason he merited to reach such great heights in kedushah and in chochmas ha’nistar was because he performed each and every mitzvah with great simcha.
This ability to live life with simchas ha’chayim is not only the fulfillment of a mitzvah gedolah, it makes for a wonderful, happy, and fulfilling life. I look back at the lives of the three aforementioned Yidden whose orbits I merited being in and am truly amazed at how much each of them accomplished in their wonderfully productive lives. Without doubt, it was their common thread of simchas ha’chayim that allowed them to achieve what they did.
And now this latest niftar, right after Yom Kippur, though in a different year, shared the same outlook on life as the other three (one of whom was his mechutan as well). I stood this morning outside in the rain at the airport, looking upon the wonderful family of talmidei chachamim and pillars of the communities of Cedarhurst, Teaneck and Miami, and thinking about his legacy of seforim on Shas and his legacy as one of the founders of the ever-growing Sephardic Torah community, and how all this was done by one of the most humble and unassuming men you could ever meet. It is a truly an amazing story of accomplishment, and one that could only have happened because of the total depth of his simchas ha’chayim.
We are about to enter the most festive yom tov of the year. Each and every Yid is required to reach deep down into his or her pure Yiddishe neshamah and burst forth with feelings of not just any simcha; as the Gra comments on the pasuk “V’hayisa ach samaeich,” it must be pure unadulterated and complete simcha.
I will attempt to do so by looking closely at the lives of these four wonderful Yidden who touched my life—as well as the lives of so many others—and learn from them how to live a life of simchas ha’chayim, despite the ups and downs that life has to offer. And by doing so, one can leave a legacy of tremendous accomplishments that are able to touch so many people’s hearts. I know that each one of them have clearly touched mine.
Yehei zichram boruch.
May all of Klal Yisrael be zocheh to live their lives with a complete simchas ha’chayim. Chag kasher v’sameiach. v
P.S.: If any reader could enlighten me on a long-standing question that I have had, it would be greatly appreciated. All responses can be sent via firstname.lastname@example.org. The question is: Why isn’t this crucial mitzvah of “mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha tamid” included in the six mitzvos temidos that the Rambam brings down in his Mishneh Torah?