The National Geographic’s recent article, “High Science,” about the new science of marijuana, features Israeli scientist, Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, who was the first to identify marijuana’s psychedelic properties. He named the neurotransmitter that binds to the same receptor in the brain as THC, Anandamide, after the Sanskrit word for supreme joy, ananda. When asked by National Geographic why he didn’t choose a Hebrew word for joy instead, he replied, “In Hebrew there are not so many words for happiness. Jews don’t like being happy.”
The good doctor could not have been more wrong.
You can learn a lot about a culture by its language. In Eskimo dialect there are numerous words for different types of snow. They are surrounded by snow and understand all the different subtle nuances between the different types of precipitation.
Classical Hebrew actually has over a dozen different words for happiness. The Talmudic sources list ten different Hebrew words for joy – there’s ecstatic joy, songful joy, surprising joy and so on (Avos d’Rebbe Nossan 34). In fact, there are so many different words for joy that it can be said that Judaism is centered around joy, as the Eskimos’ lives are centered on snow. Whether it’s celebrating life events, from births and circumcisions to bar mitzvahs and weddings, to the Sabbath and holidays, to blessings of gratitude on mundane daily activities like eating a piece of fruit or even going to the bathroom, attaining happiness is a priority in Jewish life.
The Talmud teaches that the Divine Presence only rests upon someone in a state of joy (Shabbos, 30b). “Serve God with gladness,” the Psalmist enjoins us, "come before Him with joyful song" (Psalms, 100:2). “It is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be in a state of joy always,” Rebbe Nachman of Breslav says (Likkutei Maharan, 2:24).
More recently, Professor Tal Ben-Shahar, one of the leaders in the field of Positive Psychology, author of the book “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment,” and the instructor of the most popular course in the history of Harvard University, explained that “many of the ideas ‘discovered’ by modern psychologists, had actually been present for thousands of years in traditional Jewish sources.”
What about Mechoulam’s naming of the brain’s marijuana-like neurotransmitter after a word for joy in the first place? Does marijuana lead to a state of joy? Does getting high lead to happiness?
Every high eventually goes away and is followed by a low. The low is really just a return to your normal state of consciousness, but in contrast to the high, everyday life suddenly feels like a low. This conundrum can propel the infrequent recreational user to want to get high more often to avoid the lows, creating a vicious cycle that can lead to the need for more drugs to reach the same high, laying the seeds for addictive behavior.
According to Judaism a marijuana high might smell like joy, but there’s nothing genuinely joyful about it.
The most commonly used word for joy in Hebrew is simcha. Simcha shares the same linguistic root as the word tzemach - or growth. In Judaism joy and growth are inextricably intertwined. Joy takes work. It’s the feeling that you get when you work hard at something and succeed. It is the pleasure of having reached the top of an arduous peak. You can look back at the long journey and bask in the pleasure of your accomplishment. That is true joy.
We often think that pleasure and pain are opposites, and therefore seek out all sorts of ways to achieve pleasure without pain. In reality pain is the gateway to pleasure. No pain, no gain. The more effort we exert, the more we can enjoy the fruit of our labor. When we look for all sorts of shortcuts to find pleasure without effort or pain, we end up with empty highs that lack true depth and meaning. They may look like joy, but they fade away as quickly as they came and we end up worse off than when we started.
Life is full of natural highs. We all have moments of inspiration that give us energy and vision to continue along a certain trajectory in life. Natural highs may include milestone life events such as graduations, weddings, births, as well as experiences like climbing a mountain, travelling to an exotic place, meeting an amazing person or watching an incredible sunset. But life isn’t about running after inspiration. Inspiration is free. It comes and goes easily.
One of my friends recently had a brush with death. He was miraculously saved from a head on collision on a major three lane highway, and he was ecstatic to have another day on earth. Suddenly, he experienced joy from every little thing, no matter how small or unpleasant. Seeing his kids fight, taking out the garbage, and watching the wind blow through the trees outside his house made him dance with joy. He was so happy to be alive that everything was amazing. He told me that he hoped his new state of consciousness would last forever.
Unfortunately it didn’t. After a few days, the miracle of life became business as unusual. The only way to hold on to the inspiration is by using it as an impetus to change your life by putting it into an action – no matter how small.
Everyone gets inspired. The key is what you do with the inspiration. If we find ways to integrate the inspiring moments into our very being so that they change us for the better, the high can actually last forever. That’s real growth and leads to true, long-lasting happiness.
My advice: burn off your marijuana high with some hard-earned Jewish joy.