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Don't Worry. Be Happy!

By: Rav David Milston

Towards the end of our parasha, Moshe Rabbeinu makes a final covenant with the people before they enter Eretz Yisrael. He tells them what rewards they will receive if they abide by the laws of God, and what will happen if they stray from that path. In Chapter 28:15-68, we find a detailed description of the disastrous consequences of transgression.

It begins with the following verse: “But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe to do all his commandments and His statutes which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you.”

It seems straightforward. Do the commandments and you will be blessed. Ignore them and you will be punished. However, the Torah offers us a more specific reason for the curses we are liable to incur:

Moreover, all these curses shall come upon you and shall pursue you, and overtake you, till you be destroyed. Because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and his statutes which He commanded you. And they shall be upon you for a sign and for a wonder, and upon your seed forever. Because you would not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness (simcha), and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things. (Devarim, 28: 45-47)

Will Hashem punish us because we weren't happy in our Torah observance? We can keep all the Mitzvot to the letter, yet if we don't act beSimcha, we’re in trouble. Why?

The Rambam says, “When an individual is joyous in his service of the Almighty, when He truly loves Hashem, this is indeed optimum observance. Anyone who fails to serve God in this manner is worthy of punishment, as it is written: "Because you would not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things.”[1]

The Maggid Mishna[2] says the Rambam's words are an exact interpretation of the Gemara (Shabbat 30b), in which true joy is defined as being the happiness of fulfilling a Mitzvah. One should not approach the commandments of God as burdens. On the contrary. We should be doing Mitzvot with joy and enthusiasm. We should be doing good because it is good, and pursuing truth because it is truth, for that is why we were created. We are here to serve the Creator, and so we should be naturally delighted when we fulfill the purpose of our being. The joy of doing a Mitzvah and of learning Torah is the only true joy that exists in the world.

Back to the covenant with the Jewish people. When two parties sign a deal, it can be a strictly business relationship, in which agreements are kept to the letter. Each side does exactly what they said they would do. No more and no less.

Alternatively, the contract could be a starting point for a relationship that has the potential of going much further than the details outlined in the original document. That was the driving spirit behind the initial agreement. In such a case, ignoring the underlying intent of the deed could cause catastrophic damage to the future partnership. 

Similarly, there are two distinct ways to serve the Almighty. One can study the Shulchan Aruch, black on white, and do exactly what it says. No spirit, no enthusiasm, but a genuine obligation that has to be fulfilled, word for word.

On the other hand, one can approach Judaism with the exact same commitment, but with added eagerness and enthusiasm. We are not simply fulfilling our obligations because we were bound by a covenant. We are happy and excited to play our role in the contract, because we view it as a gift or an honor, and not a burden.

Parents of adolescent children know there are occasions when a child does what he or she is told to do with ‘an attitude.’ Every step is accompanied by a grimace or a comment until the act is finally done. There is no joy or happiness; it was done because it had to be done. Yet there are also more pleasant instances when the same child happily fulfills his part of the bargain, even doing more than he was actually asked.

The Ramchal summarizes the idyllic relationship when discussing saintliness.[3] He says we all know Mitzvot are binding on all of Israel and the extent to which we are bound by them. However, one who truly loves the Creator will endeavor to fulfill his obligations in the same manner as a son who loves his father. Even if his father gives only a slight indication of desiring something, he will rush to fulfill this desire as completely as he can. And although the father may express his wish only once, or maybe incompletely, it is enough for such a son to understand what his father wants and he will do it for him even when he did not expressly request it.

Nevertheless, after digesting the words of the Rambam, Maggid Mishna and the Ramchal, it would still seem a little harsh to invoke the severe curses in our parasha on a people who are fulfilling their obligations but just not doing so joyfully. After all, they are still keeping their side of the agreement.

To reconcile the Rambam’s comments in the context of our parasha, perhaps we could suggest that if we do not observe Mitzvot with joy, our basic do-it-because-we-have-to observance is considered invalid. It would appear that enthusiasm and happiness are not an optional additional clause, but rather an integral element of the body of the contract. Therefore, if these clauses are violated, it automatically nullifies the whole covenant, resulting in the disastrous repercussions listed in our parasha.[4]

However, there is an alternative way to understand our verse. Rabbi Natan, the famed student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, was known to say:

Had I been happy constantly, I would never have to fear seeing the entrance to Gehinnom.

Pessimism and negativity distance us from the Almighty. When we despair because of our failures, we ignore the fact that the Almighty is at our side and always looking out for our success. Despair is irrelevant, almost heretical. As if to say there is no way out, no God, Heaven forbid. The name ‘Yehudi’ is a derivative of the word ‘Hoda'a’ – to be thankful and grateful to Hashem. As Yehudim, our relationship with God is one of absolute gratitude irrespective of our reality, because we know in the depths of our hearts and soul that all He does is for the best.

Righteous Chassidic leaders, who followed the spiritual direction of the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezeritch, emphasized the need to be in a constant mode of joy. This is the only way to be Jewish. Simcha lays the foundations for Torah and Mitzvot.[5]

Now we can understand that our verse is not simply referring to the practicalities of enacting our part of the bargain. It is revealing a much more fundamental aspect of faith.

Let us look a little closer: “Moreover, all these curses shall come upon you and shall pursue you, and overtake you, till you be destroyed. Because you would not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and his statutes which He commanded you. And they shall be upon you for a sign and for a wonder, and upon your seed forever. Because you would not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things.” (Devarim, 28: 45-47)

If we were to adopt our initial explanation, and just apply joy to our mitzvah observance, we are left with a superfluity. The first verses already speak of lack of observance, so surely the final verse dealing with lack of joy is referring to something else? Another failing apart from a basic lack of observance?

We could perhaps suggest that Moshe Rabbeinu's rebuke here refers to two very distinct dangers. The first is a lack of observance, while the second is a lack of genuine belief, as reflected by the deficiency of inner happiness in our lives.

We are to be punished for our sadness because it indicates a lack of belief in God. If we truly believe that all God does is for the good, we should always enjoy peace of mind. Of course, no one expects us to jump for joy in the face of tragedy, but even if we cannot fathom our reality, we must not be drawn into despair and apathy.

For example, we have a clearly defined time limit to our mourning period. Hashem recognizes basic human needs, but always within a higher context. Indeed, the only bereavement purposely left unlimited in Judaism is the sorrow for the Beit HaMikdash.

There is a fine distinction here. On the one hand, the sadness of loss or upon hearing bad news is natural, necessary and relevant. But on the other, despair and despondency are unacceptable, because they reflect a rejection of God's ruling wisdom.

Our verses describe a possible scenario in which we are fully observant of Mitzvot whilst simultaneously despondent, emphasizing that such a reality is almost a contradiction in terms. If our observance is an external expression of a true inner belief in the Almighty, there can be no room for depression or despair. If such a reality does exist, our observance is clearly not yet reflective of who we really want to be and what we believe in.

The world we live in is full of reasons to cry. It is easy to become frustrated and depressed. Most people are negative too. As religious Jews, we have a responsibility to set an example and "shine our countenance" upon the world, sure in our belief that Hashem is in charge. He knows what He's doing. All these subjective tragedies and curses are but small pieces in the awesome puzzle of human history, guided and shaped by the Almighty Himself.

Hashem is our Father. He loves us more than we can imagine. He knows exactly what we need and when. Sometimes he has to pinch us to wake us up. But we know it's ultimately for our own good.

He's been keeping his side of the bargain for thousands of years. Now it's our responsibility to keep ours. Tamid BeSimcha!

 

[1] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Lulav, 8:15.

[2] A commentary on the Mishneh Torah,

[3] Messilat Yesharim, Chapter 18.

[4] This cannot be understood from the Ramchal's comments for they were not made with any reference to our verse. He is referring to the higher spiritual level of the Chassid who acts out of pure love of God, as opposed to the lower religious degree of Tzaddik, who does what needs to be done. There is no implication in the preceding chapters of Messilat Yesharim that a Tzaddik form of behavior is unacceptable. It is simply a lower level of relationship with the Almighty, one that most of us spend our entire lives trying to reach!

[5] See ‘Ometz,’ published by Shir Chadash – chapter on happiness.

 

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