Today’s daf (Pesachim 109a) informs us that ‘a person is obligated to bring joy to his children and to the members of his household on the festivals, as it says וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ – “and you shall be joyous on your festival” (Devarim 16:14)’. In response to this statement, the Gemara then proceeds to suggest various items which bring שמחה (joy) to men, women and children – thereby suggesting that all members of a household should be joyous on a festival. Still, from a simple reading of this rule, it might appear that שמחה is something that we enable and provide just for others.
Contrasting this, when the Rambam codified this law, he made it clear that ‘a person is obligated to be שמח (joyous), טוב לב (which, though literally translated as ‘good of heart’, was interpreted by Dayan Lopian zt’l as ‘well balanced’): he, his children, his wife, the members of his household, and all those who depend on him’ (Hilchot Shevitat Yom Tov 6:17) – meaning that שמחה is something that you should seek and provide both for yourself and for others. Significantly, this phraseology of the Rambam is echoed by Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 529:2), who then adds that included in this law is the duty to provide for strangers, orphans, widows and for other people in need.
Unfortunately, there are those who (incorrectly) understand this rule in the literal sense of the Gemara’s statement, which means that festivals become a time for giving and bringing joy to others, but not a time for giving and bringing joy to oneself. For such people, festivals aren’t able to generate a true sense of שמחה, and those individuals who have come to think this way often struggle to feel טוב לב – well balanced – on a festival. Given this, whether or not you are someone who has others around you who try and provide you with שמחה, it is also important that you consider what brings שמחה to yourself.
This lesson struck home a few years ago when I was reading a responsum penned by Rabbanit Anat Novoselsky in response to the following question that she had received: ‘A year ago I became a widow after being married for 35 years. Before every festival, my husband zt’l made sure that he bought me a gift, and each time he gave me the gift, he would say: ‘It states in the Talmud: “A woman’s husband should make her happy,” and truthfully, I was very happy. Now that I am alone, what should I do? Am I obligated to be happy on a festival?’
After presenting various sources on this question, Rabbanit Novoselsky explained that while a person should do what they can to treat others, they should also seek שמחה for themselves, and thus she concluded her responsum by saying: ‘and you, my dear questioner, go and discover how you can make yourself happy in the best way possible, and by doing so you shall have the merit of fulfilling the commandment of וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְּחַגֶּךָ – “and you shall be joyous on your festival”’.
Sadly, this year there will be those who have lost loved ones due to COVID who, perhaps until now, have been treated by them before a festival. Beyond this, given the economic impact of the pandemic, there are– unfortunately – many people in financial straits. And beyond this, there are many whose world has been turned upside down over the past year who are desperate to experience the true שמחה of a festival. Of course, if we know people in need then we should do whatever we can to help bring שמחה to their life and thereby fulfil the mitzvah of providing ‘for strangers, orphans, widows and for other people in need’.
And in terms of ourselves – whatever our circumstance – we should take a moment before Pesach to consider what brings us שמחה, and we should then do whatever we can to provide ourselves with what we need to experience a joyous and well balanced Chag.