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In Iggeret Hakodesh chapter 11, the Baal Hatanya says :

In truth, however, “No evil descends from above,” and everything is good, though it is not apprehended [as such] because of its immense and abundant goodness. [...] Accordingly, “Strength and gladness are in His place,” because He is but good all the time. Therefore, first of all, man ought to be happy and joyous at every time and hour, and truly live by his faith in G‑d, Who animates him and acts kindly towards him at every moment. But he who is grieved and laments demonstrates that he is undergoing some hardship and suffering, and lacks some goodness; he is (heaven forfend) like a heretic, who denies G‑d’s omnipresence.

Several questions :

  1. This seems to be a very high level to achieve, since ignoring one's suffering and still being joyous in the middle of it usually require an enormous and almost superhuman level of exertion of will and self subjugation. If this is only an ideal level one should strive towards - meaning that the overwhelming majority of people will not reach it - why is there such a harsh rebuke of those people being compared to heretics?

  2. What about the Torah sanctioned or even halachically mandated instances of when one should be sad and grieve/lament (for example mourning a relative, or lamenting the destruction of the Temple)? The reasoning (that all seemingly bad events and calamities only seem that way, but are actually good) would apply even to these instances. And, in fact, the quote above seems to require being happy and joyous at all times whatsoever, and to never have feelings of sadness.

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  • And on further thought - is it the right thing to do to just simply ignore one's own experience of pain and suffering? Even though you might be able to intellectually convince yourself that it is a hidden good from G-d, that does not remove the experiential/qualia aspect of the suffering. You're still intensely feeling it, and being aggravated or sad about it is almost an involuntary response (by the brain). So this can lead to a state of a sort of cognitive dissonance, where you also feel guilty for not truly being happy, which in itself exacerbates the suffering even more
    – user9806
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 18:31
  • Also, what about feeling sad for the pain/suffering of others, or having feelings of empathy for them. Pushing away your grief for these people, and forcing yourself to be joyous instead, seems almost like diminishing one's concern and empathy for their suffering.
    – user9806
    Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 18:35
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    My understanding from the last Lub Rebbe's explanation of R' Nachman's "mitzvah gedolah lihyos besimchah tamid" is that what is being advocated is always being happy -- but not to the exclusion of other emotions. When one is sad, it should be an ambivalence going along with feeling happy that one is in relationship with the Almighty. (Comment, not answer, because I lack the will right now to find sources.) Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 13:52

3 Answers 3

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In general, sadness is something to be avoided by anyone trying to serve G-d, like is understood from Tehillim 100:2 which says:

Serve G-d with joy, come before Him with song.

Contrary to what you suggest, There is no "rebuke" being made by the Alter Rebbe. He only applies the comparison of being like a heretic, meaning similar to someone who denies G-d and the Torah, to one who has actually attained the level of comprehension he describes in the opening of the letter and who then indulges in excessive grieving over material hardship.

Even there, he only points out the hypocrisy of denying G-d's goodness for such a person by overindulging in being 'grief-stricken' over material hardship.

He explains this in the context of understanding that because part of our faith is that the universe is created by G-d, Ex Nihilo, meaning from nothingness, constantly, every moment of every day, and that we also believe that nothing negative comes from G-d, like is found in Bereshit Rabbah 51:3, then it is understood that even those things which appear to us as negative, are in truth, only good.

The second part of your question seems to be confusing the difference between mourning which is אבלות, and sadness or depression (עצבות ודאבה).

Mourning is a procedure. It has specific practices which are outlined in halacha about what one is to do or to refrain from doing. In fulfilling those procedures, one has mourned, fulfilled a mitzvah and served G-d.

Sadness and depression are emotional states. They are actual states of being, but are not mitzvot. There is no commandment of G-d to be sad.

The Alter Rebbe clearly acknowledges the obligations for mourning as can be seen, for example, in Siddur Torah Ohr, volume 2, section 6 and 7 discussing the laws of mourning. With the petirah of a loved one, most people experience sadness. But to be sad is not some requirement of mourning.

To my knowledge, the Alter Rebbe does not advocate suppressing emotions. What he teaches is that emotion, middot, arise via the intellect (Mochin or Sechel). That is why his school of Chassidic thought is called 'Chabad'. It refers to Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge (חכמה בינה ודעת), the components of the intellect. It means that part of our Avodah is to strive to use our intellect, each individual according to their unique capacity, to express their emotions properly in service to G-d.

There are two stories which come to mind to help illustrate this idea.

The first is from the bottom of Makkot 24a and continued on 24b. It recounts two occasions when Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were walking together along the road. In each circumstance, Rabbi Akiva's response upon seeing a very negative event was laughter from joy, while the other sages cried from sadness.

The difference in emotional response was due to how each individual processed the observation intellectually. With Akiva, he saw in the negative events the revelation of G-d's goodness, meaning that only good comes from Above like is mentioned above from Bereshit Rabbah. With the other sages, that goodness was not perceived. It was concealed from them. As a consequence, they cried in sadness.

The second story recounts what happened when the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber Schneerson was passing away in front of his son, the future 6th Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson.

The 6th Rebbe was known throughout his youth as being a highly emotional individual. His father had worked with him throughout his life to master his mind, his intellectual powers, in order that his emotions should always express properly in service to G-d.

In these final hours of the 5th Rebbe's life as he lay before his son, he was giving his son final guidance and instructions about becoming Rebbe in the coming hours. In that moment, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok was overcome with grief and sobbing. As incredible as it may seem, his father, Rabbi Shalom Dov Ber's response to his son was, "Middot?!...Middot?!...Mochin!"

With all this, it is important to remember that the Tanya is also called Sefer Shel Benoni, the Book of the Intermediate Person. That means that the level of service to G-d described therein, is attainable by anyone who stands in that middle ground between being totally righteous or the opposite. However, with that said, it also explains that this is a constant, day to day struggle for such people. That is why it is called Avodah, work.

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  • I'm not sure what you mean regarding the difference between mourning and sadness. Surely, being sad over a loss is an integral component of any mourning. And of course one can think of losing a loved one as also one of the things that come from G-d and that only appear negative but are good in truth. But that intellectual realization, even if forced, doesn't take away the raw emotion of sadness and grief. Would the Alter Rebbe say that one should repress/supress such emotions and somehow replace them with joy?
    – user9806
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 3:25
  • Thank you for expanding your answer. While some or even most emotions arise via the intellect and can be controlled and shaped by it, there are some emotions - such as grief that are uncontrollable intellectually since they are in some sense hard-wired. [Another example of this is sadness and depression due to a chemical imbalance]. This is what I meant by "suppressing emotions" - those emotions that the intellect has no control over, may only be suppressed, and only in certain instances, and even then not without potential further aggravation and distress.
    – user9806
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 19:00
  • @user9806 You're welcome. All emotions can arise spontaneously without being directed by the intellect. In a healthy person, what is said above applies. What you describe about certain people who have some kind of illness which alters their ability to have normal, healthy emotional response, that is something altogether different. Such a person is ill. That is not being addressed in this letter from the Tanya. But like with all things in the Torah, they are an exceptional circumstance, not the norm. Your question was not asking about exceptional cases of people with mental illness. Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 19:21
  • @user9806 But your assumption that there are certain emotions which cannot be controlled or shaped by the intellect in a normal, healthy individual is incorrect and not what the Torah teaches. Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 19:27
  • Regarding your last comment - I beg to differ. There are a vast array of emotions that can not be controlled by a healthy individual's intellect [that is, conscious control]. Natural fear is a good example (e.g. airplane starts falling down, being confronted by an armed robber). In these circumstances, I think you would agree that an average person would find it impossible to control that emotion. (It's possible to control the actions in response to fear - that is called bravery, but it's not typically possible to suppress or even calm a strong emotion of fear). Similarly for grief.
    – user9806
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 19:58
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B"H

In Tanya chapter 26 it specifies that one should never be sad about material matters, but regarding one's own sins, one should set aside specific times to be upset about them in order to you teshuva, but not during one's Torah learning or work or davening.

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I do not need to restate the points made in the other answers, I just want to add one definition that might make things clearer.

According to Chassidus, הָעַצְבוּת, sadness, is not an emotion, but rather a disposition of the heart. See this answer for more explanation and sources, but I will summarise here.

It is part of 3 dispositions:

  1. Simcha - heart open to all emotions, positively
  2. Merrirut - heart open to all emotions, negatively
  3. Atzavut - heart closed to all emotions

The first two are useful in Avodat Hashem and therefore one should work on utilising them in one's service, but 3 is not useful at all (and counter productive) so therefore is meant only to be overcome.

One should aim to be always open to emotion, and mostly in a positive disposition (b'simcha). Negative disposition serves its purpose, and the proper use is to activate it at set times of Teshuva etc.

Therefore to answer your points:

  1. If one is suffering, but is b'simcha, that will stir genuinely heartfelt emotions regarding one's suffering, and at set times one should be bitter about it, which will lead to one genuinely taking action to improve their condition. If one is b'atzuv, one will just feel numb, and nothing will change; they are stuck and disconnected from life. This is something to overcome.
  2. As mentioned, there are set times for bitterness, but not only that, being b'simcha doesn't mean feeling happy and loving! It means feeling. Only someone b'simcha can truly cry about something tragic (a sad person will not feel much, if anything), and that crying doesn't always have to be bitter. Those who know, know. May we only have simchas.
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  • It would be helpful to use the Hebrew words next to the specific phrases that you are trying to define. I am assuming that what you are calling "disposition" is from the Hebrew מזג, which I would translate as "temperament". Temperament means: Mode of emotional response, like a particular "flavor" of emotional response. Emotion is usually a translation of מדה, which also has a sense of "quantification" or "measure". Emotion is: A conscious mental reaction subjectively experienced as strong feeling. Torah defines מדות as: חסד, גבורה, תפארת, נצח, הוד, יסוד. The empty container is מלכות. Commented May 15 at 15:23
  • Temperament, or מזג is the particular flavor, meaning mixture of the pure emotions or מדות. Think like mocha-chocolate flavored ice cream. It's a blend of pure coffee flavor (emotion) and pure chocolate flavor (emotion). The מזג or "temperament" is the blend or the pure flavors or מדות (emotions). Commented May 15 at 15:30
  • @YaacovDeane no, not מזג. I don't know of any Hebrew word for this inyan, מדה in the general sense is perfectly fine. In Tanya Ch1 עצבות is one of the מדות רעות. It's not a Sefira though, that's what makes it different. I think "disposition" is a great word for it, in English.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 15 at 15:51
  • You are saying in your answer, "according to Chassidut". That should be easy enough. Specifically where in Chassidut are you referring? What specific term in the Hebrew or Yiddish used are you drawing from? If you are talking about some English language video or tape you heard from someone, you would be relying on their grasp of the original language and their grasp of English and whether their translation is correct or off the mark. It's always best to stick to the original language for proper comprehension. Commented May 15 at 17:43
  • As I said, there is no separate Hebrew word, it is just מדה, and it is clear that these מדות are not the same as the 7 מדות. I think the way I explained it is fine, and keeping to a clear English explanation is also fine.
    – Rabbi Kaii
    Commented May 15 at 17:49

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