Joy to the World

And all these curses will come upon you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed. For you have not listened to the voice of Hashem, your L-rd to observe His commandments and statutes that He commanded you. They will be to you as a sign and wonder and to your descendants forever. [This is] because you did not serve Hashem, your L-rd, in happiness, and with a good heart out of great abundance.  (Sefer Devarim 28:45-47)

I. Moshe’s message

In Parshat Ki Tavo, Moshe describes the blessing that Hashem will bestow on the Jewish people in response to their observance of the mitzvot and the curses that will come upon the nation if it abandons the Torah. The above passages are part of Moshe’s admonishment. Moshe communicates three messages in these passages. First, he tells the people that if they do not obey Hashem and observe His commandments, then the curses he has described will pursue and overtake them. 

Second, Moshe explains that these curses will be a sign and a wonder for the Jewish people. What does Moshe mean? Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra comments:

[These curses will be] as a sign from Hashem that you have rebelled against Him. Not for you alone but also for your descendants. [This is] as expressed [in the passage], Our ancestors sinned and they are no more, [and we bear the burden of their iniquities.[1]] (Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer Devarim, 28:46.)

Moshe explains that if the people rebel against Hashem, they will not be able to attribute the suffering that will afflict them to happenstance. The suffering will be extraordinary – a wonder. Its incredible character will be a constant reminder that their suffering is punishment for their abandonment of Hashem’s commandments. It will continue from generation to generation until the people repent and return to Hashem.

Finally, Moshe adds that the people will be punished because they do not serve Hashem in joy and with a good heart when they experience the abundance provided by Hashem’s blessings.   

II. Must we serve Hashem will joy?

Twice in these passages Moshe identifies the behavior that will bring on the nation the curses he has described. First, he tells the people that the curses will come in response to their disobedience, their neglect of the Torah’s commandments. Then, he describes the curses as a response to the people’s failure to serve Hashem joyously and with a good heart. There are two problems with Moshe’s admonition.

·      Are we required to be obedient and observe the commandments or are we also required to serve Him with joy? Moshe first, says that we must be obedient. Then, he says that this is not adequate. We will be punished with terrible suffering if we do not serve Hashem joyously.

·      Why is our obedience not adequate? If we meticulously observe the Torah’s commandments and conform to Hashem’s will, why must we also be joyous? The Torah presents its commandments and demands that we observe them. It does not demand that we enjoy their observance.

And now, behold, I brought the first fruit of the land that You gave me. And place it before Hashem, your L-rd and bow before Hashem, your L-rd. You will rejoice in all the good that Hashem, you L-rd, has given you and your household – you, and the Levite, and the convert, among you. (Sefer Devarim 26:10-11)

III. Blessings and joy

There is a previous mention in the parasha to joyously serving Hashem. The above passage discusses the Bikurim – the first fruit. Each year we are required to bring the first fruit of the harvest in the Land of Israel to Yerushalayim and present them in the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple. In the above passage, Moshe explains that one should present the Bikurim with joy. Why should the Bikurim evoke joy? Moshe explains that the joy is in response to recognizing all the goodness that Hashem bestows on us. In other words, the Bikurim are the first fruit of the rich land that Hashem gave to Bnai Yisrael. The Bikurim we bring to the Bait HaMikdash are an acknowledgment of Hashem’s blessings and His graciousness. This acknowledgment should naturally evoke our jubilation.

The Torah is addressing a basic challenge we face. Let’s consider an illustration of this challenge. One morning, last week, I went outside, got into my car, pulled out of the driveway to go to minyan. I immediately realized that one of my tires was flat. After, returning from minyan, I asked AAA to send someone to install my spare tire. In a short time, someone arrived. He looked at my car and told me that it does not come with a spare – only a repair kit. He inspected the tire and discovered that it had a rip. It could not be repaired. He told me he would summon a tow-truck to take the car to a tire shop. Because of the current pandemic, the tow-truck driver is not permitted to allow a passenger to ride in his vehicle. I was told I would have to arrange transportation to the tire shop. Eventually, everything was resolved, the tire was replaced. But the entire protracted episode made me realize how many things “go right” for us every day.

Each morning I awake, arise from bed, and go through my morning routine. My car awaits me. I attend minyan, return, and go about the day’s activities. So many things “go right” every day and I take them for granted! When something went wrong – my flat tire – and an enormous amount of time was required to make things right, I realized how blessed I am each and every day. The point of this illustration is that the blessings that we enjoy with regularity we take for granted. We count on them and assume that they will recur and remain constant. Because we take them for granted and do not even recognize the blessings in our lives, we do not derive joy from them. How jubilant we will be if we realized how many blessings we enjoy each day! This is the message of BikurimBikurim reminds us that our harvest is a blessing from Hashem. Recognizing our bounty as a blessing and not taking it for granted brings us joy.

IV. Joy and observance

Now let us reconsider our original questions. Are we required to serve Hashem or to serve Him joyously? Are the curses, Moshe describes, a response to abandoning the mitzvot, or to not serving Hashem with joy?

When we recognize the blessings that Hashem bestows upon us, we feel joy. Our service to Hashem is a natural extension of that joy. We appreciate His love for us, and we respond by obeying His commandments. But if we take all the good things in our lives for granted and do not recognize them as blessings from Hashem, then they do not evoke joy or gratitude. This makes it difficult for us to observe His commandments and serve Him. We do not perceive Hashem as close to us or involved in our lives. He is a distant, abstract force, whose role in our lives and connection with us is theoretical or unreal. 

Now, Moshe’s message is clear. If we abandon the Torah, then we will be punished with the curses Moshe describes. The punishment is for disobedience. Moshe is not suggesting that we will be punished because we do not feel jubilation. 

What does Moshe mean when he says that our punishment will result from not serving Hashem with joy? He is explaining how one comes to abandon the Torah. Moshe warns us that if we do not serve Hashem with joy, when His blessings do not cause our jubilation, then we have taken the first step toward abandoning the Torah. Once we take our blessings for granted and they no longer bring us joy, then serving Hashem becomes a burden. The weight of this burden eventually undermines our commitment to Hashem and His Torah.

Moshe’s message includes a positive element. It provides a powerful means for strengthening our observance and service of Hashem. We must pause each day, or many times each day, and reflect. How many things are going right for us? How many blessings are we experiencing? What is the source of these blessings? If we can perform this exercise and recognize the presence of Hashem in every aspect of our lives, then serving Him is transformed from being a burden to being a natural expression of our joy.

[1] Megilat Eichah 5:7.