Why does misfortune befall the Jewish people? While there is no simple answer – or perhaps no answer at all - to this complex problem of theodicy, the Torah offers a fascinating and perhaps startling insight into a cause of our misfortune. The Torah in parshat Ki-Tavo lists the blessings and rewards which will follow from our observance of the Torah, followed by a series of curses and punishments for ignoring its dictates. This list of 98 curses, which is always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah, is so terrible that the custom developed to read it quietly as if to say what we don't know about can't come back to hurt us. (On the other hand, some argue we should read it even louder so people will clearly know what can be expected for disobedience).
The curses include items such as "We will be cursed in the city and in the field; there will be misfortune, confusion and frustration; our corpses will be food for the birds of the sky; when you betroth a man another will sleep with her; your sons and daughters will be given to a foreign nation; you will go insane from what you have to witness".
In a rather astonishing statement the Torah tells us that this is happening "because you did not serve G-d your Lord bsimcha ubetov levav, with happiness and a glad heart" (Devarim 28:47). What an amazing statement. Serving G-d is not enough; it must be done with joy.
The source of that joy is hinted to earlier in the parsha. The parsha begins with the mitzva of bikkurim, the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple and giving them to the kohen. The farmer expresses his gratitude by sharing his bounty with others and by acknowledging G-d’s role in the survival and thriving of the Jewish nation. We had wandering ancestors and were almost destroyed by Egyptian taskmasters but here we are enjoying the bounty of the land. The mitzva of bikkurim concludes “vesamacta, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you” (Devarim 26:11).
Gratitude begets happiness.
“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships”. This quote coming from a publication of Harvard Medical School could easily be that of one of our classic commentaries.
"Serve G-d with joy" (Tehillim 100:2). Living a life filled with mitzvot should bring one great joy and happiness. All too often people focus on the difficulties of being a Jew. For much of our history that was understandable - even so the Jewish people often rose above their difficult circumstances living lives of great meaning and joy – but today there is so much to be grateful for and hence so many ways to experience joy.
In the introduction to the Eglei Tal, his classic work on the laws of Shabbat, the Avnei Nezer, the founder of the Sochochev Hasidic dynasty, explains that the “essence of the mitzvah of learning Torah is to be happy and full of joy and derive pleasure from one’s learning. The words of Torah will then be absorbed into one’s body”. When we enjoy a mitzvah, it becomes part of our essence and this, he explains, is the highest form of service of G-d.
Simcha in Jewish thought is always associated with helping and coming close to others. "You shall rejoice in your holiday along with your son and daughter...the Levite (who in ancient times did not own any land), proselyte, orphan and widow” (Devarim16:14). Selfishness and true happiness are mutually exclusive. G-d is the epitome of sharing and giving to others. Since simcha is equated with being close to G-d simcha must perforce mean helping others
Simcha is further associated with being in the presence of G-d. “And you shall rejoice lifnei Hashem, in the presence of the Lord (Vayikra 23:40). It is for this reason that Yom Kippur – the day we are closest to G-d – is the happiest of the year. Being in the presence of G-d and coming close to our fellow man are two ways of saying the same thing. It is for this reason that joining Yom Kippur as the happiest day of the year is Tu B’Av, a day of marriages.
It is a great privilege to be Jewish. Serving G-d must reflect that. Helping others and being in the presence of G-d is the essence of what it means to be a Jew. We must “serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart”.
The Torah tells us why this is often so hard. We left out above the last two words of the verse, "merov kol" an abundance of everything", such that the verse reads "because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything".
Wealth can be a great blessing. But it can also be - and very often is - an even greater curse. Ironically, the more one has the harder it can become to express gratitude to others. Fortunate are those who can combine wealth with gratitude and joy.
It is tragic that our society equates happiness with material success. While having our material needs taken care of is a prerequisite for the implementation of Torah - If there is no flour there is no Torah (Pirkei Avot 3:21) - it should be recognized for what it is - a means to an end. We live in the most affluent society of all time yet there was probably never a time when so many people are unhappy as they are today. It behooves us to focus on helping others and thereby bring joy to others – and ourselves. May the year ahead be one of true happiness and simcha for the Jewish people.