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09/04/2020 12:05:42 PM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Cultivating Joy In The Service of God

09/04/2020 01:04:28 PM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

How would you characterize the Jewish people? 

Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg notes that the Jewish people have lots of labels - we are called “The People of the Book” - for example. But he proposes that the most authentic and descriptive title for us should be אומה עליזה - the joyful nation or the  happy nation. 
Whether we are a happy nation, or are supposed to be a happy nation, Rabbi Weinberg’s contention makes the statement in this week’s parsha very challenging. 
We are told that we will be punished by having to serve our enemies...

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

Because you would not serve the LORD your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.
What is this Pasuk trying to teach us? What difference does it make what attitude we have when performing the Mitzvot. Isn't the Torah only concerned with what our actions and not with our inner character?  Is there a requirement to serve God with joy? 

The Rambam answers the question with an emphatic yes. 

  רמב"ם שופר וסוכה ולולב ח
 הַשִּׂמְחָה שֶׁיִּשְׂמַח אָדָם בַּעֲשִׂיַּת הַמִּצְוָה וּבְאַהֲבַת הָאֵל שֶׁצִּוָּה בָּהֶן. עֲבוֹדָה גְּדוֹלָה הִיא. וְכָל הַמּוֹנֵעַ עַצְמוֹ מִשִּׂמְחָה זוֹ רָאוּי לְהִפָּרַע מִמֶּנּוּ שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה' אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב (דברים כ"ח:מ"ז)

The joy which a person derives from doing good deeds and from loving God, who has commanded us to practise them, is a supreme form of divine worship. Anyone who refrains from experiencing this joy deserves punishment, as it is written: "Because you have not served the Lord your God with joy and with a glad heart" (Deuteronomy 28:47).   

So, how do we do it? How do we cultivate Simcha shel Mitzvah - joy in serving God.
The Maggid Mishnah, an important commentary on Rambam, explains that it is all about attitude. As we may know, Rambam, and others believe that we can alter and change our attitude. 

First he notes that we mustn't look upon Mitzvot as “an obligation” that one is forced to do. This, in and of itself is a bit radical, as of course the Mitzvot are obligatory! Yet, that is not what should animate us. That should not be our focus.

The joy we must experience from doing Mitzvot, he says,  comes from the recognition that we are doing good because it is good and acting in an upright fashion, because it is upright. Finally, he notes that the joy in doing Mitzvot comes from the realization of the privilege it is to serve God. 

This is something we do not think about often. What a privilege it is to serve God. If a servants status is measured by the station of their master, then there can be no rung higher on the ladder of service than being an eved Hashem - a servant of God. 

So one way is to work on our attitude.

There is another way to cultivate joy, and that is to focus on the present. This idea is explored by Rabbi Yaakov Nagen. He reminds us that Judaism is often focused on memory and anticipation. For example, on Pesach we remember slavery in Egypt AND we say, Next year in Jerusalem.  This Is good, but “one cannot overlook the present...The statement  “Everything will be okay” is not a blessing - not only because it denies the good that already exists in the present, but because it also negates the future good. Those who ignore the present in favor of future hope may not notice when all the good they yearned for comes to pass.”

The focus, Rabbi Nagen says, should be זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃
This is the day that the LORD has made— let us exult and rejoice on it. (Psalms 118:24)
While usually referring to one of the special days on the Jewish Calendar (Pesach, Yom Ha’atzmaut), perhaps it should be taken to refer to every single day. “Such an interpretation of the verse reflects the understanding that life itself - not necessarily what occurs in life - is the source of happiness. On the other hand, when we chase after “reasons” for joy, we lose the capacity to find happiness in life itself and enjoy what is already there.”
One more important thing - related to this time of year.

 The Talmud explains.

״וְשִׁבַּחְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת הַשִּׂמְחָה״ — שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה. ״וּלְשִׂמְחָה מַה זֹּה עוֹשָׂה״ — זוֹ שִׂמְחָה שֶׁאֵינָהּ שֶׁל מִצְוָה. לְלַמֶּדְךָ שֶׁאֵין שְׁכִינָה שׁוֹרָה לֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְבוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ עַצְלוּת וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שְׂחוֹק וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ קַלּוּת רֹאשׁ וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ שִׂיחָה וְלֹא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבָרִים בְּטֵלִים, אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ דְּבַר שִׂמְחָה שֶׁל מִצְוָה

Similarly, “So I commended joy,” that is the joy of a mitzva. “And of joy: What does it accomplish?” that is joy that is not the joy of a mitzva. The praise of joy mentioned here is to teach you that the Divine Presence rests upon an individual neither from an atmosphere of sadness, nor from an atmosphere of laziness, nor from an atmosphere of laughter, nor from an atmosphere of frivolity, nor from an atmosphere of idle conversation, nor from an atmosphere of idle chatter, but rather from an atmosphere imbued with the joy of a mitzva. 
The Talmud is actually telling us that God wishes to be close to those who serve Him with joy. Well, if this is the season of wishing to get closer to God, it seems like cultivating joy as a means to getting close to God is a good idea. 

In the essay about the Jewish people being a joyous nation, Rabbi Weinberg  writes that if you really want to see the joy of the Jewish people, peek in on a family celebrating Sukkot in their sukkah. There you have a group of people,  sitting in a rickety hut , on folding chairs... he talks about it being cold - but here - we sit in the sukkah in intense heat - and yet - the joy is palpable.  

He is correct, it is  easy to find joy in a sukkah, but Rav Aharon Lichtenstein takes it a step further and teaches that we can even find joy in the process of Teshuva.

He writes:  “Can there be any greater source of joy than your oppor­tu­ni­ty to be Choz­er BeTeshu­va, a pen­i­tent, as well as actu­al­ly being one? The sin­ner has access, an appoint­ment with God. With all the sense of depen­den­cy, defilement, and fail­ure, you are nev­er­the­less ​‘a pris­on­er free­ing him­self from prison.’ Shall we not rejoice at the priv­i­lege afford­ed us?”

What a remarkable spiritual claim! It encomapasses all of what we said. The privilege of serving God and the appreciation of the moment - by focusing on our relationship with God now and not allowing the past to keep us down.

Let this be a shabbat tht for many reasons we can declare: 

זֶה־הַ֭יּוֹם עָשָׂ֣ה יְהוָ֑ה נָגִ֖ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָ֣ה בֽוֹ׃

This is the day that the LORD has made— let us exult and rejoice on it.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781