From Torahs to Stories – Part 7

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2012

“I will tell you how they were happy.” Happiness becomes the critical point of this whole process. Usually we understand joy as an expression of abundance, a fullness of the self that overflows. For Rav Nachman, happiness has a different significance… The last part of “From Torha to stories”

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Joy from Melancholy

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From here I would like to proceed to the story.

“I will tell you how they were happy:

Once upon a time, there was a king, and he had only one son. And the king wished to pass his kingship to his son in his lifetime so he held a great feast (called a ‘ball’). And of course, whenever the king hosts a ball, there is great happiness - and especially then, as he transferred the kingship to his son in his lifetime, there was much happiness. And all the royal ministers, dukes and officers were there, and they rejoiced at the feast. Even the state was happy about the living king’s transfer of power to the prince, for it was a great honor for the king. And there was great, great joy. And there were all kinds of entertainment: choruses and comedies and so on, all types, every sort of enjoyment was at this feast.

When everyone was greatly gladdened, the king said to his son: ‘I’ve looked to the stars, and I can that you are destined to lose the throne. So see to it that you will not bear sadness when you lose kingship. Only be happy. And when you are happy, I will be happy. And indeed, when you are sad, I will be happy that you are not king. For you are not fit for kingship when you cannot remain happy upon losing kingship. But when you are happy - I too will be happy, exceedingly happy.”

Rav Nachman opens the story with an exceptional scenario: the king transfers the kingship to his son in his own lifetime. This would seem to be a sad event - a sign of the king’s weakness and fading glory, a mark of his inability to maintain his reign. Yet here, it is the very reason for a celebration, a very joyous feast. As the story progresses, happiness and sadness continue to mix; it is specifically when all were “greatly gladdened” that the king stands and makes his declaration. It is in the midst of this that the king says to his son that he is destined to lose the same throne that he has just gained and that, nevertheless, he must stay happy - for this is the condition of kingship. What is meaning of this story? What is the ‘loss of kingship,’ and why does happiness play such a central role here?

It is possible that the scenario Rav Nachman brings is tied to his own historical context. Rav Nachman witnesses the rise of the haskala (Enlightenment) and the budding of secularism, a process that would set man at the center and shake up traditional systems of authority. The spread of knowledge would lower the status of parents and teachers - as well as Admu”r’s. A similar scenario is found in the story of the prince and the pauper, where a state of fools run by a smart king becomes a state of wise men run by a foolish king. Rav Nachman sees a process ‘in the stars’ that will destabilize authority. This demotion is necessary, and Rav Nachman does not even voice opposition to it; instead he sees it as an opportunity to remain happy, b’simcha.

“I will tell you how they were happy.” Happiness becomes the critical point of this whole process. Usually we understand joy as an expression of abundance, a fullness of the self that overflows. For Rav Nachman, happiness has a different significance. Despite his strong tendency towards melancholy, Rav Nachman wishes to tell us ‘how they were happy’; this is only one of the paradoxes that this story invites us to consider.

The description of a happiness that springs from melancholy begins early on, already in the introduction, as the sun sets on one reign. The loss of the throne is the same situation as the one I described earlier, of when man loses his being. In this state, words become empty, his Torah becomes worthless.  Imagine someone who has lost his hands; a man whose words no longer sustain him is even worse off. 

Rav Nachman’s ‘shift’, here, is in the attempt to awaken joy that is beyond words, beyond ‘scientific’ observation. He brings a story that could transport us all to that place where you meet your body, your movement, your silence. That is where happiness comes from.

Some years ago I read this portion of the story at a wedding, in a speech I gave under the chuppah.[1]I addressed it to the parents, for the status of parents at their children’s wedding is a kind of ‘descent’ from kingship. Until now, they were Mom and Dad: their children lived in their care, and looked up to them. But the chuppah is the moment of “And so man will leave the house of his father and mother” (Genesis 2:24): the bride and groom grow wings and fly, and the family hierarchy is thrown completely off balance.

This is the question Rav Nachman lays before us: is this a descent that brings sadness?

And here Rav Nachman responds in his characteristically absolute way: if descent from your rule brings you sadness, then you do not deserve this kingship. The test is happiness as one loses the throne - this is the simcha yeteira (an ‘excessive’ happiness) which recognizes that kingship itself has an element of falsity and imagination. Being full of one’s self, the uplifted image of the king - this is a kind of absurdity in the world. You can only rule -be a father or an Admu”r -only if you know how to relax your body, be silly and laugh at yourself, be of good heart and in happiness. The happiness I spoke of earlier - not a passing ‘good mood,’ but an opening for liberation - comes specifically from a place of loss of substance and being, when you shed all that gave you life yesterday. The longer you live, the more this becomes apparent. Yet you must always - at every time and stage - know and recognize that an idea has expired, that certain words have lost their resonance. When a person reveals that he can let these go - it is that movement that can bring him happiness, a happiness of freedom from all that has become dull and meaningless, “an excessive happiness.”

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[1] The speech can be found in: Rav Shagar and Yair Dreyfus, Re’im Ahuvim - Drashot Chatuna(Efrata: תשס”ח), p. 19.

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