In this week’s parasha, Moses completes his speeches of preparation and guidance and begins preparing for a new covenant between G-d and His nation, one that will take effect in a ceremony that will take place after they enter the land. This covenant detailed blessings of abundance if the nation follows G-d’s path, and curses should it abandon that path. We do not need to read those verses to understand what those curses entail. It’s enough to look at our nation’s hardships through history to recognize each one of them.
The fact that bad things can come from G-d and affect His nation when it does not follow His path presents a difficult theological problem for people who believe in a benevolent and righteous G-d.
Without delving into the complexities of this issue, we can examine the significance and essence of this covenant that creates an inextricable bind between G-d and His people. This covenant seals the commitment to two paths: If the nation chooses well, G-d is committed to fulfilling His part of the covenant and imparting His goodness onto His nation. But if they choose badly, the covenant calls for the full extent of the punishment described. According to this week’s parasha, the choice is ours.
In the list of curses, we find these surprising verses:
…because you did not serve the Lord, your G-d, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything… Therefore, you will serve your enemies…
(Deuteronomy 28, 48-49)
These verses seem to state plainly that suffering will be brought upon the nation because it did not worship G-d despite the abundance He gave it. This is how most commentators understand this. But two of the great Jewish thinkers in the last one-thousand years interpreted this verse differently. The first was Maimonides, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a Jewish legal authority, philosopher, man of many talents, and a doctor (Spain-Egypt, 12th century). The second was Rabbi Isaac Luria, the greatest of kabbala scholars in Safed in the 16th century. They both interpreted these verses more literally: Suffering will be brought upon the nation because they were supposed to worship G-d with happiness and gladness of the heart but didn’t.
Maimonides writes as follows:
The joy which a person derives from doing good deeds and from loving G-d, who has commanded us to practice 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 G-d with joy and with a glad heart”
(Hilchot Lulav 8, 15)
According to Maimonides, joy is a central component of worshipping G-d and fulfilling His commandments, and efforts should be made to be joyful. Indeed, when a Jew understands the significance of his covenant with G-d, the infinite and lofty, the huge underlying meaning this covenant provides to every action, and the fact that G-d personally benefits those who choose goodness… this understanding has the power to fill his heart with joy for even the smallest of good deeds.
We can pretty easily accept that joy fills our hearts because of something good. But when someone is trying to make a change in his life and return to himself, his environment, and his G-d, that process is often accompanied by pangs of conscience that lead to depression and sadness. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder and first rebbe of Chabad, wrote:
It is with the service of G‑d just as it is with a victory over a physical opponent, for instance, two people who wrestle with each other, each striving to fell the other. If one of them is lazy and sluggish, he will easily be defeated and will fall, even if he be stronger than the other. Similarly with the conquest of one’s evil nature. It is impossible to conquer the evil nature with laziness and sluggishness, which stem from sadness and a stonelike dullness of the heart, but rather with alacrity, which derives from joy and an open heart that is unblemished by any trace of worry and sadness in the world.
In the Jewish calendar year, we are currently in the month of Elul, known as the month of compassion and slichot. The Jewish New Year is approaching with the High Holidays and Sukkot. This special time, as one year ends and the next begins, is dedicated in Jewish tradition to examining the past year, making changes and doing repentance. There is no better time than this to remind ourselves and those around us of the joy we are supposed to feel in our hearts for every good deed and for every good desire to change. We must also not forget that only by being happy and banishing sadness can we be empowered to be victorious in our inner struggles.