Ki Tavo 5779 – Serve God with Joy

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Do you serve God with joy? Or do you just serve God with your usual attitude? Does it matter what attitude we have when we serve God?

One of my favorite commandments is one we were given a few weeks ago in our Torah reading, relative to the upcoming holiday of Sukkot: usamachta b’chagecha, you shall rejoice in your holiday. We’re commanded to be happy! Cool, let’s be happy on the holidays!

You might think this is just a sort of encouragement, that we should rejoice in the holidays, as opposed to a serious commandment that you could be punished for ignoring. 

This week’s Torah reading has a very harsh tochecha, a rebuke. There’s a list of horrible curses that would befall us for straying from God. The curses are so bad that back in the day no one wanted to have the aliyah – a lot of times the rabbi had to take it because no one else wanted it. The reader would read it with a quiet voice.

Why do these bad things happen?

תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹא־עָבַ֙דְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְט֣וּב לֵבָ֑ב מֵרֹ֖ב כֹּֽל׃

וְעָבַדְתָּ֣ אֶת־אֹיְבֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְשַׁלְּחֶ֤נּוּ יְהוָה֙ בָּ֔ךְ בְּרָעָ֧ב וּבְצָמָ֛א וּבְעֵירֹ֖ם וּבְחֹ֣סֶר כֹּ֑ל וְנָתַ֞ן עֹ֤ל בַּרְזֶל֙ עַל־צַוָּארֶ֔ךָ עַ֥ד הִשְׁמִיד֖וֹ אֹתָֽךְ׃

“Since you didn’t serve the Lord your God with joy and a good heart and an abundance of everything, you will your enemy that God will send to you, in hunger, in thirst, naked, lacking everything. The enemy will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he destroys you” (Deuteronomy 28:47).

And the Torah continues with a long list of the horrible things that will happen, including we’ll be so hungry we’ll eat the flesh of our own dead children.

In case we missed the connection, the Kotzker rebbe, a 19th century Hasidic rabbi, tells us we bring on the rebuke for not serving God with joy. He said,

If you don’t serve God with joy, but serve God only like a commandment of people that you have learned, a person gets cold, and forgets that there is a creator in the world, until he transgresses all the transgressions that come his way, and therefore he will be punished with all the punishments that are mentioned.  And when a person examines the reason for his sins, he will see that they are a result of not having served God with joy.

So the Kotzker clarifies for us that what happens is not that we get punished for not serving God with joy – but rather that if we don’t serve God with joy we’ll feel distant from God, we’ll feel cold about God, until we forget about God completely, and that will lead to our sinning every sin that comes our way. And that’s what we get punished for. So in a way, serving God with joy isn’t as much a commandment as it is a piece of good advice: serve God with joy and you’ll have a good relationship with God, and you’ll be on a good path.

And this is really true. I have a friend who grew up in an Orthodox home. He hated Shabbat. For him Shabbat was just a long list of no’s. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. His father sat in a chair with a newspaper all day. So as soon as he went off to college he ran the other way and didn’t want to have anything to do with Shabbat and all those “no’s.”

My kids had a very different experience of Shabbat. We always encouraged (and still encourage) them to bring friends over for Shabbat dinner. Shabbat is always pretty joyous by us. And the day is more about the things we say “yes” to. For example, during the week everyone is busy. If one of my kids wanted me to do something, play a game or whatever, I might or might not say yes, but on Shabbat I’d always say yes. Not all of my five daughters are shomer Shabbat, but some of them are, and even the ones who aren’t still enjoy having Shabbat meals together, and it’s because Shabbat was about more than saying “no.”

Rebbe Nachman tells us it is a great mitzvah to serve God with great joy always. It’s fascinating in a way that this is one of Rebbe Nachman’s most famous teachings, because Rebbe Nachman himself struggled with depression. He knew it’s not always easy to serve God with joy. But it’s a great mitzvah, because it brings us closer to God, our families, and our friends.

Mitzvah Gedolah Le’hiyot Besimcha Tamid

It’s a great commandment to always be joyful

May you have a joyous Shabbat!

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