Serving Hashem With Joy
There is a common pre-Rosh HaShana bracha which states, “may this year and its curses end, and may next year and its blessings begin!” This bracha is rooted in the practice that Parshat Ki Tavo, with its litany of curses, always occurs before Rosh HaShana. However, within the list of curses, there is an unusual line. Between the descriptions of exiled nation and king and the forced servitude to enemies, the Torah states that “because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and fullness of heart when things were good.” How is this curse connected to the punishments of exile and slavery? Why is it such a terrible thing to serve Hashem without joy? After all, one is still performing the mitzvah, which is a higher level than happily not doing the mitzvah.
The Bechor Shor states that exile is a result of being ungrateful for being in Eretz Yisrael. When Hashem brought the Jewish people to Israel, He intended the land to be an ideal environment to attain spiritual heights due to the land’s inherently spiritual nature in addition to the Jewish people being a free nation with no one to serve but themselves. There would be no foreign tyrants prohibiting mitzvah observance or limiting their agricultural production. Instead, Bnei Yisrael were ungrateful for the land, and did not serve Hashem in those optimal conditions. Therefore, Hashem decided to exile them and enslave them, thereby daring the Jewish People to remain faithful to mitzvot even under trying circumstances.
Rabbeinu Bachye ben Asher comments in his peirush on Ki Tavo that mitzvah observance is not just the actual performance of the mitzvah. The mitzvah is incomplete without the component of simcha. The simcha is not just “icing on the cake,” but a mitzvah in and of itself. Therefore, when the Jewish People did not serve Hashem, “b’simcha v’tuv levav,” they were saying that they did not take the mitzvah of serving Hashem with joy seriously. They were saying that they did not enjoy doing mitzvot, and they were only during them because they were obligated to do them. As long as they had actually done the mitzvah, they believed they had fulfilled their “religious obligations” and were free to go on living their lives.
Rabbeinu Bachye continues to elaborate on this thread, citing examples in Tanach where people such as Reuvain, Aharon, and Boaz performed crucial mitzvot. Yet at the same time, the Midrash Rut criticizes them by saying that if they had realized they would be immortalized for eternity by doing these mitzvot, they would have done them with even more enthusiasm and on a wider scale. The Midrash is hinting that even the greatest of figures in Tanach were not always aware of the additional mitzvah aspect of simcha when performing a mitzvah.
The Chassidic rabbeim offer a third interpretation of this passuk. They rephrase the verse to be stating that “because you did not serve Hashem, happily and with joy.” They state that not only did the Jewish People not perform mitzvoth, they were happy not to perform them. This in itself is considered a great sin, in addition to not performing the mitzvah.
There are times in life where we may not have time to perform a certain mitzvah, or the surrounding environment does not allow us to do so. Yet we should not be happily thinking, “Hurray! I don’t have to wake up for minyan because I am in a place where there aren’t so many Jews,” or “I’m on vacation, so I don’t really have to learn every day.” Instead, they should feel disappointed that the time or circumstances do not give them the opportunity to perform a certain mitzvah, and that they will be even more enthusiastic in performing that mitzvah when the opportunity should arise.
Therefore, exile and enslavement are fitting punishments to counteract this attitude. If the Jewish people were happy when they did not have to perform mitzvot teluyot b’aretz, Hashem would take those mitzvot away from them by sending them into exile. They would geographically be unable to perform those mitzvot. Similarly, as slaves, there would be many times they would not have time to perform certain mitzvot, due to their always have to be ready to serve at a minute’s notice. They could no longer be happy that they couldn’t do mitzvot, rather they would long to do those mitzvot again, because their performance states that they are a free people and their time is their own.
As I will, b’ezrat Hashem, be in Israel by the time this column goes to print, I believe that there are many practical lessons that can be derived from their meforshim on the personal and national levels. First, we should develop a deeper sense of gratitude for Hashem having given us control over the land of Israel. Whether we agree with the government’s policies or not, it is still under Jewish sovereignty. Hashem is giving us the Land of Israel and saying, “Here you are. You are back in My Land, and I am putting it under your own dominion so you can do mitzvot without fear. If you complain too much about it, I could always send you back into exile again.”
Secondly, we should learn the importance of doing mitzvot with joy. Especially during Yomim Noraim, sometimes one may feel a sense of “I hate this time of year. I have to spend hours and hours davening and doing teshuva; when will it end?” Instead of resenting these mitzvot, we should feel blessed that Hashem is offering us a way to repent for our sins and reconnect to Him, instead of blasting us into oblivion whenever we sin. When we perform mitzvot, we should celebrate that Hashem has given us so many different ways to connect to Him.
This renewed conception of mitzvot goes hand-in-hand with the idea of not being happy when we cannot perform them due to extenuating circumstances. If we look at every mitzvah as an opportunity to realize Hashem’s presence in our lives and connecting to Him, we will feel sad if we cannot perform them. This disappointment should serve as a catalyst to inspire us to greater dedication upon reattaining accessibility to them. I’d like to wish all of our readers a kativa v’chatima tovah, and may we all be inscribed for good gezeirot for this upcoming year.
Adina Brizel lives in Kew Gardens Hills, NY. She majored in Judaic Studies at Stern College for Women and earned her master’s degree from the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. She is currently working as a rakezet at Midreshet Devora, and can be reached at email@example.com.