"And Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to meet Israel, his father, in Goshen...and he fell on his neck and wept" (Genesis 46:29).
"But Jacob did not fall on Joseph's neck and did not kiss him, for our Rabbis said that he was saying the Shema..." (Rashi).
Happiness is that which every man seeks. Indeed, in our times, it is happiness and the search for it- in material and physical terms- that have become the very purpose of life. Books are written about happiness and peace of mind and the masses devour them, searching for the Holy Grail in the shallowness that is fit only for McCall's or Cosmopolitan. The psychiatrists' couches groan beneath their weight; the airlines and drug peddlers both sell their trips; the race is on and non-stop, and not to the swift or the slow is the trophy awarded.
The sadness is that happiness is not the essence of life, and how much did the Rabbis know when they said: It would have been better and more pleasant for man had he not been born, but since he was, let him search his deeds. Life is a series of difficulties and sadnesses, broken by occasional rays of light that pass.
Happiness is a wonderful thing, and what a life it would be if we could abolish tears and fears, worries and tribulations. But not for this was a man made, and if he persists in making it his raison d'etre, he is guaranteed misery. Man is not an island unto himself nor is his entry into this world like some sudden underwater eruption that thrusts a piece of land into the wide ocean. His is a deliberate and planned and reasoned birth. He came into this world to do good. And that which is "good" is defined for him, not subject to the independent and anarchistic commentaries of his own mind or breed. For the Jew there is the halacha that shapes, molds, guides, and drives him to sanctity and spiritual holiness. It is for him a guideline and a compass; it gives him ritual and gives him concepts, and DEFINES HIS EMOTIONS, TOO.
Joseph was a boy of 17 when he left his father's home. For years Jacob thought he was dead, devoured by a wild beast. For years he mourned and refused to be comforted. "Nay, for I will go down to the grave mourning for my son" (Genesis 37:35). And suddenly he hears the incredible words: "Joseph is yet alive" and- wonder of wonders- "he is ruler over all the Land of Egypt!" (ibid. 45:26). Jacob cannot believe it; the joy is too much and he finally cries out: "It is enough! My son Joseph still lives! I will go and see him before I die!" (ibid. 45:28).
And he does. He takes his family and goes down to Egypt. See the old man, the man grown aged and white from a life of sadness and tragedy. How he counts every moment; how he impatiently looks towards the south to see the first glimpse of the royal caravan! How he savors the moment when he can hold his son Joseph in his arms and kiss him! And then- at last- finally- the moment arrives, and Joseph rushes to his father's arms and embraces him and kisses him. and Jacob?
"But Jacob did not fall on Joseph's neck and did not kiss him for he was saying the Shema..."
What greatness lies in a man who can take his deepest-felt emotions and discipline them to the halacha and say: Wait! Wait, though I burst from impatience; wait, though my every limb cries out for release. Wait: I am in the midst of accepting upon myself the yoke of heaven, of recognizing the L-rd as one, and this is why I was created. Wait, my Joseph, wait, for though I love you more than all, this is my G-d.
Let us understand what happiness and rejoicing in the Law means to a Jew. To begin with, it is a COMMANDMENT. Can one command an emotion? Can one "say", be happy, rejoice, it is commanded? Apparently yes. Apparently, the purpose of Torah is to elevate man to holiness and sanctification that he can make his very emotions and feelings cry out: "Who is like You, my G-d!" Yes, the Torah can tell a Jew who has lost a beloved one not to mourn on the Sabbath, though his heart is breaking. It can tell a Jew to stand over the open grave of a parent or a son and say the words of the Kaddish: "May His great Name be exalted and magnified..." Yes, the Torah can tell a person who seeks joy: No, not now.
There is no commandment to be sad. There is no law that declares that man must be miserable. This is not Judaism. But we are told that there is something greater than happiness and joy. It is the climb and the reaching up to holiness and sanctification, to beauty and dedication, the smashing of the ego and the greed and the selfishness and the "I." One should strive to be happy, of course. And if one can be both good and happy- how fortunate he is. But in the end, life is not a vessel for joy. It is a corridor in which one prepares his soul. Be happy with the Torah though your own soul is in agony. It is a command and, slowly, it proves to be a balm for the wounds that ache.
The Jewish Press, 1977