In this week's parsha, there is a grim catalogue of the dire consequences of disobeying G-d's commandments. This section is read in a soft voice, to intensify its effect. It seems to me that these consequences are not so much punishment, as the inevitable result of abusing the people or things in one's environment.
In any case, as the commentators have pointed out, the description of these curses can be divided into three sections. The first section is introduced with the phrase: "But if you do not obey the L-rd your G-d to OBSERVE faithfully all His COMMANDMENTS AND LAWS which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you ..." (Deut. 28:15).
The second section begins with the phrase: "Because you would not SERVE the L-rd your G-d with JOY AND A GLAD HEART ..." (28:47), and follows with worse predictions.
The third section begins with the phrase: "If you fail to observe faithfully all the terms of this Teaching that are written in this book, to FEAR THIS HONORED AND AWESOME NAME ..." (28:58), and now the curses become unmentionable -- literally! -- "... the L-rd will bring upon you every disease and plague which is not written in the book of this Teaching ..." (28:61).
This ordering seems rather strange. One might think that the reverse direction would be more natural: that the harshest penalty should apply to those who do not obey the mitzvos, a milder penalty to those who obey the mitzvos, but without joy, and a milder penalty still to those who obey the mitzvos with joy, but not with fear. The commentators do not seem to deal with this problem.
In thinking about this, I was reminded of a Midrash on the book of Samuel. It says that a talmid chochem can lose all his knowledge in the space of three years. In the first year, he will confuse what is permitted and what is forbidden. In the second year, he will forget the sources of the halachas. Finally, in the third year, he will confuse what was said by Rav and by Shmuel. Again, the order seems wrong!
It seems to me that the answer to this problem (which will also give an answer to the other problem) is provided by a key word: "dveikus", or attachment. Someone who is attached to the Torah, even if he forgets the halachic decisions in the Gemara, will remember where the arguments occurred which led to those decisions, and even if he forgets that, he will remember who said what -- whether it was Rav or Shmuel, Hillel or Shammai. Someone who has forgotten even that, is totally detached from the Torah.
One of the leading books on halacha in our age is "Chochmos Adam". This is an indispensable reference work for any rabbi involved in halachic decisions. But the author of this was not a rabbi, or even a full-time Torah scholar! He was a businessman, who often went on long business trips. How was he able, then, to produce such a masterpiece? He deals with this issue in his introduction, and comes up with the following explanation. Although he would travel for months on end without his books, he would feel a tremendous lack, and as soon as he returned home, he would jump immediately back into his halachic work. This attachment to Torah more than compensated for his long absences.
This issue of attachment also explains the order of severity of the curses discussed earlier. Someone might not observe all the mitzvos, but still feel an attachment to the Torah, and serve G-d with joy. More serious than this, perhaps, is going through the motions of the mitzvos, but feeling no joy about it, and more serious still, performing the mitzvos with neither joy nor fear of G-d. The latter attitudes show increasing degrees of detachment from G-d and the Torah.
There is a story (true, I believe) about a man who went to his rabbi and said: "Rabbi, I have sinned, I went to a prostitute." "Well," the rabbi responded, "that is a serious sin, but you can repent for it -- the Rambam clearly sets out the laws of penitence -- and put it behind you." "But, Rabbi, I first sent her to the mikva." "You low creature!" the rabbi shouted at him, "Get out!"
The rabbi apparently felt that the man, although technically lessening his sin by sending the woman to the mikva first, actually showed a greater detachment from the Torah by his calculation and planning, than if he had just gone to her, without any preparation at all, in a moment of weakness.
Recently I had an argument with someone who claimed that the (real or supposed) lack of decorum in Orthodox synagogues, compared to Conservative or Reform places of worship, should not be judged too harshly. After all, the people who are engaged in all this talking during Orthodox services observe, at least, the laws of Shabbos, kashrus, etc., and this makes them better than most people at Reform houses of worship, who observe decorum.
I disagree. The issue here is not the halachic technicalities of talking during services -- exactly when it is permitted, which topics are permitted, and so on, all of which are dealt with in a few lines in the Mishna Brura.
The issue runs much deeper! People who do not observe decorum during services are displaying a detachment from the Torah. They are forgetting the injunction: "Know before Whom you stand!" and they are actually committing a Chilul HaShem, which may be a more serious sin than the Chilul Shabbos of non-Orthodox Jews!
We should be especially concerned with the issue of attachment to G-d and His mitzvos now, during the month of Elul, the name of which forms the initials of the sentence from the Song of Solomon: "Ani leDodi veDodi li", "I am my Beloved's, and my Beloved is mine."