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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Savo: “It’s not so hard to be a Jew”
The Ramban points out that the two Torah portions of warning correspond to the two destructions of the Temple and all of the tragedies that the Jewish people have endured during the exiles. The Torah says that the Jewish people suffer so many tragedies because we do not serve G'd with gladness and goodness of heart. Rabbenu Bechayey explains that all these tragedies result from our failure to serve G’d with joy. The Rambam says this verse in the Torah refers to serving G’d altogether. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon explains that both interpretations compliment each other. Rather than try to force our feelings, the Torah tries to help us develop our feelings. Children who appreciate how much their parents do for them naturally love their parents very much and will do everything they can to make their parents happy. The stronger we feel G’d’s love and care for us, the greater is our joy in serving Him. Parents who do not serve G’d with joy cannot expect their children to serve G’d at all.
This week’s Torah portion contains one of two portions known as “tochachah”, warning the Jewish people that if we do not adhere to the commandments, disastrous consequences may follow. The other warning is contained in Parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:14-43). In this portion, Moses warns that if we do not hearken to the voice of G’d to observe and perform His commandments and decrees, many curses will come upon us and overtake us (Devarim 28:15) as listed with much detail (Devarim 28:15-68). The Ramban points out that the two Torah portions of warning correspond to the two destructions of the Temple and all of the tragedies that the Jewish people have endured during the exiles (Vayikra 26:16).
Serving amid gladness
Near the end of the warning in this week’s Torah portion, Moses says that the Jewish people will suffer so many tragedies "because you did not serve G'd amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant" (Devarim 28:47).
There are two different interpretations. Rabbenu Bechayey explains that all these tragedies result from our failure to serve G’d with joy. (Ibid) In the Mishnah Torah, the Rambam (Laws of Teshuva) gives us to understand that these tragedies result from our failure to serve G’d altogether (a service which is performed with joy and gladness). The Rambam confirms that this Torah verse refers to the joy we should feel when we fulfill a mitzvah (Law of Lulav 8:15). However, in the laws of Torah learning, the Rambam again states that this verse in the Torah refers to the actual service of G’d (3:13).
According to Rabbenu Bechayey’s interpretation, we may question why the Torah commands us to serve G’d with joy. Is it not sufficient to fulfill all of the Torah obligations? Someone who is scrupulous to fulfill all of the Torah obligations but does it without any joy, could it be that they deserve the tragedies mentioned in the warnings just because they were not joyful? In general, how can there be a commandment telling us how to feel emotionally when we fulfill our obligations? Is the Torah trying to force our feelings?
These two interpretations at first appear to contradict one another. Are the punishments for not serving G’d at all or just for the lack of joy in serving Him? Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, of the Lakewood Yeshiva, explains that both interpretations are correct and compliment each other. The punishments and curses only come if the Jewish people do not observe the commandments altogether. However, what is the cause that some Jews stop doing mitzvot? The answer is the other interpretation of a lack of feeling joy in the observance of the mitzvot. Sometimes it may take a generation or two before the lack of enjoyment in fulfilling mitzvot leads to not observing the mitzvot at all, and sometimes it can happen by the very same person.
How do we develop joy in performing the mitzvot? Only through appreciation and gratefulness for G’d’s love and care for us will we enjoy fulfilling his will.
The Torah is not trying to force our feelings. That would have no purpose. Human beings have free will. That means that everyone’s feelings are their own. G’d designed life so that free will allows all of us to control our own feelings. Rather than try to force our feelings, the Torah tries to help us develop our feelings.
When a person knows that there is someone who loves, cares and provides for that person in every situation; this will bring the person to feel good, happy and full of joy. Further, this person will be more than happy to show appreciation and reciprocate to the benefactor. It will be a pleasure and joy for this person to do as much as possible to make the benefactor happy. Children who appreciate how much their parents do for them naturally love their parents very much and will do everything they can to make their parents happy. Even in difficult times, the children will not forget to be grateful to their parents. How much more so is this true in times of goodness and joy. Ungrateful children, on the other hand, are miserable and show disrespect to their parents in good times as in bad and have no interest in doing anything for them.
Our relationship with G’d
In the Shemona Esrei, we acknowledge three times a day that G’d is our “Helper, Saviour, and Protector”. G’d continually showers us with His love. He cares and provides for us in every situation. Realizing this will help us to serve G’d with joy, if only to acknowledge the love that we feel for Him, knowing that this gives G’d pleasure. The stronger we feel G’d’s love and care for us, the greater is our joy in serving Him. Failing to serve G’d with joy shows a lack of appreciation of His lovingkindness to us.
“It’s hard to be a Jew”
The great sage, Rav Moishe Feinstein, once commented on why the children of so many pious Jews who came to North America from Europe fell away from Torah observance. He blamed the well known expression commonly used "es is schwer zu sein a yid", “it is hard to be a Jew”. Parents who do not serve G’d with joy cannot expect their children to serve G’d at all. The children of parents who observe all of the Torah commandments will have no desire to follow in their parent’s footsteps if the parents do not convey any joy in their observance. We cannot judge these pious Jews. Many of them had very difficult times trying to put bread on the table. But the truth is that it is possible to be joyous even in difficult times.
The Joy of Shabbos
There is another well known saying “that more than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews". But this is only true when Shabbos is kept with joy. Jews who were oppressed throughout the week and intimidated by their neighbours and co-workers, when they entered their homes on Friday nights, sang the traditional songs with their families, and sat at beautiful tables, they elevated themselves above the tragedies in the physical world around them. To this very day, Jews all over the world sit around their Shabbos tables and enjoy the atmosphere of royalty they have created. They enter into a different dimension that gives them strength to endure all the hardships of the coming week in the physical world.
The New Year
The Talmud says that we read this portion of warning every year before Rosh Hashanah (Megillah 31b). It is an expression of our hope and prayer that as the year is coming to an end, so too may it be that all the tragedies shall come to an end. We have again been through a very difficult year for the Jewish people. The troubles that continued in Israel since last Rosh Hashanah have been on all of our minds for the whole year. As we read this portion at this time of year, we all join with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and pray that no more blood will be spilt and that the coming year shall bring complete peace and the end of this long and bitter exile with the coming of Moshiach.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network