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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 destructions of the two Temples and all of the tragedies that the Jewish people have endured during the exiles. The Torah says that the Jewish people suffer so much because we do not serve G'd with gladness and goodness of heart. Rabbenu Bechayey explains that the Torah refers to our failure to serve G'd with joy. The Rambam says this refers to serving G'd altogether. Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon explains that both interpretations complement each other. Rather than to force our feelings, the Torah helps us develop our feelings. Children, who appreciate how much their parents do for them, love their parents very much and will do everything they can to make them happy. The stronger we feel G'd's love and care for us, the greater is our joy serving Him. Parents who do not serve G'd with joy cannot expect their children to serve G'd at all.


This week's parasha contains one of two portions known as "tochachah", warning the Jewish people that if we do not adhere to the commandments we will suffer disastrous consequences. The other warning is in Parshas Bechukosai (Vayikra 26:14-43). The Ramban points out that the two portions of warning correspond to the destructions of the two Temples and all of the tragedies that the Jewish people have endured during our exiles (Vayikra 26:16).

Serving amid gladness

Near the end of the warning in this week's Parasha, Moses addresses the Jewish people and says that these punishments come "because you did not serve G'd amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant" (Devarim 28:47).

Two interpretations

There are two different interpretations of this verse. Rabbenu Bechayey explains that all these tragedies result from our failure to serve G'd with joy. The Rambam quotes this verse three times. In Laws of Teshuva (9:1) he writes that it describes our punishment for not serving G'd altogether. The verse mentions gladness for that is the way one serves G'd. In the Laws of Lulav (8:15) the Rambam goes along with Rabbenu Bechayey and explains that it refers to the joy we should feel when we fulfill a mitzvah. However, in the Laws of Torah Learning (3:13), the Rambam again states that this verse refers to the actual service of G'd.

Forced feelings

According to Rabbenu Bechayey's interpretation, we need to understand why the Torah obligates us to serve G'd with joy. Is it not sufficient to fulfill the mitzvot? In addition, how can G'd command us how to feel when we fulfill the mitzvot?

Both correct

We further need to reconcile the two interpretations. Are the punishments for not serving G'd at all or for the lack of serving Him with joy? Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon, the Mashgiach of Lakewood Yeshiva, explains that both interpretations are correct, and that they complement each other. They refer to two stages that follow one another. We only get punished if we do not observe the mitzvot altogether. However, what causes someone to stop doing mitzvot? The answer is the other interpretation. Someone who feels no joy observing the mitzvot will eventually stop altogether. Sometimes it may take a generation or two before this lack of enjoyment leads to not observing the mitzvot at all, and sometimes it can happen by the very same person.

Free will

The Torah is not trying to force our feelings. That would have no purpose. G'd created us with free will that allows us to control our own feelings. Rather than to force our feelings, the Torah is directing us to develop our feelings in the right direction.

Grateful children

So how can we train ourselves to perform the mitzvot with joy? First of all we have to realize and appreciate how much G'd loves and cares about us. When someone realizes that another person loves, cares and provides for him in every situation, he feels good and full of joy. He will be more than happy to reciprocate and do as much as possible to please his benefactor. For example, children who see how much their parents do for them, love their parents very much, and will do everything they can to make them happy. Even in difficult times, the children will be grateful to their parents. How much more in times of goodness and joy? On the other hand, children, who do not feel that their parents care and love them, are miserable. They have no respect for their parents 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 and care. He constantly provides us with our needs. Even when He punishes us, it is ultimately for our benefit. When we internalize this it will help us to serve G'd with joy. We will want to reciprocate His love and give Him 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 that we lack in our appreciation of His love for 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 it on the well-known expression "es is schwer zu sein a yid", "it is hard to be a Jew". If it is hard, it is not enjoyable, and if it is not enjoyable why should the children to continue to observe the mitzvot. We cannot judge these pious Jews. Many of them had a very difficult time trying to put bread on the table. But the truth is that throughout the generations Jews, who had a positive attitude, were able to be joyous even in the most difficult times.

The Joy of Shabbos

There is another well-known saying: "More than the Jews have kept Shabbos, Shabbos has kept the Jews". But this is only true when Shabbos is observed with joy. Throughout our long exile, many Jews were oppressed by their employer and intimidated by their neighbours and co-workers. However, when they entered their homes on Friday nights, sang the traditional songs with their families, and sat at beautiful tables, they rose above the difficulties of 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 higher spiritual world that gives them strength to endure all the hardships of the coming week in the physical world.

The New Year

The Talmud (Megillah 31b) says that we read the warnings in this week's parasha every year before Rosh Hashanah. 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 problems and difficulties that the Jewish people endures shall come to an end. We have again been through a very difficult year. As we read this portion we join with our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land and pray that no more blood shall 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel