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Thought for the Day: Simchat Torah 2023

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“…a chance to feel contentment about how far we’ve come.”

Good morning.

As the dark of another night lifts, it may surprise you to hear that a country renowned for its short days and cold winters is in fact happiest in the world. I’m talking about Finland which was voted number one in the 2023 World Happiness Report – for the sixth year in a row.

Now, what is the secret to Finland’s enduring happiness?  I believe it lies in the perception Finns have of true happiness. A perception they share with Judaism.

On the 14th of October 1663, the well-known English diarist, Samuel Pepys, visited a Synagogue in London for the first time and wrote of his surprise at the scene that greeted him. The singing, dancing and palpable joy were unlike any prayer service he had ever witnessed.

What Pepys didn’t realise was that he had stumbled upon a service for Simchat Torah, literally the joy of coming to the end of reading the Torah over the past year. Addressing this period, the Book of Deuteronomy states, “You must rejoice on your festival and be exceedingly happy”. The 19th century great Jewish mystic, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, went one step further to declare: “It is a great virtue to always be happy!”

Now, how can there be an imperative to be happy?  We don’t have a ‘happiness button’ that we can press at will.

In Jewish tradition we differentiate between two different types of joy: ‘sasson’, which is elation, and ‘simcha’, which is happiness. A moment of exhilaration can generate a fleeting state of elation. But, having momentarily been on ‘Cloud 9’, one soon starts to slip off it.  Simcha, or happiness, however, is something very different. Coming from within, it’s the deep-rooted sense of fulfilment and gratification that accompanies achievement. You might not be laughing out loud, but you’re feeling content.  As the Book of Psalms puts it: “When you eat the fruits of your labours, happy are you and it is good for you”.

‘Simchat Torah’ which begins on Saturday evening, may have looked unusual to Samuel Pepys. However it provides a wonderful opportunity for personal and communal reflection on our achievements of the past year..  a chance to feel contentment about how far we’ve come.

I’m told that in Finnish, the word ‘Iloinen’ reflects the fleeting sense of elation, while ‘onnellinen’ aligns with the profound and deeper feeling of happiness. Finns characteristically place great emphasis on health and balance, grit and resilience, and the mental characteristics that foster contentment. No wonder they tell us that they feel so happy.

The Talmud teaches that true joy, derived from one’s own achievements, provides a wealth greater than anything money can buy.