D’var Torah: Because you did not serve with joy

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 September 2023

In two places in the Torah we find a long list of curses – what are known as a tochechah – a section of divine rebuke, warning of what will happen to those who disobey.

One is towards the end of Leviticus, and the other in this week’s sidra, a few verses after the section we will be reading in the morning.

The warnings found in our portion are particularly harsh – enough that in some communities in the past they would skip this passage of Torah, or read it without calling someone to Torah, or would pay someone to read it so that it was a task not an honour. They are still, traditionally, read more quietly than other sections of Torah.

The tochecha of Ki Tavo also contains rather a strange rationale.

Why will these curses befall us? Not only because of disobedience but: ‘Tachat asher lo avad’ta et Adonai elohecha b’simcha u’v’tuv leivav mei-rov kol’ – ‘Because you would not serve the Eternal your God with joy and gladness of heart over the abundance of everything’.

It feels an odd rationale for punishment – not to be sufficiently content at the world around us.

The world is not always abundant, not always good to us, and even when it is, it is not in our power to control our response – we can’t force ourselves happy.

Of course, that can’t be what Torah is asking.  All of this terrible punishment can’t hang on our emotional response.

The demand of Torah is not that we enjoy, but that we serve with joy – that we bring an openness of heart.

One of the great insights of our tradition is that approaching the world with joy is not something that happens to us – is not simply our emotional response – but is something that we can control – the hashakafah, the orientation, that we bring into our encounter with the world.

And, in particular, how we approach our religious life. In Mesillat Yesharim – the Path of the Just, one of the great works of musar (a form of Jewish ethical wisdom) the eighteenth century rabbi Moshe Hayyim ‎Luzzatto directly links this verse in our sidra to what we do here, the life of community and prayer.  This is a specific warning, he states, that we must approach our prayer life with that orientation – joy is what he calls an ikar gadol – a great principle, and he links it to the words above our ark: Ivdu et Adonai b’simcha – serve God with joy.

Simcha is not an emotion but a religious task.

It is an approach to community, to one another, to our prayer life.  One that is not grudging but open.  One that does not begin with complaint about what isn’t but with appreciation of what is.  One that is not done on our own, but with others – coming together in community.

It is this that the extraordinary tochechah of Ki Tavo warns us about.
It is this without which, whether we believe in divine rebuke or not, we cannot hope to live a Jewish life of fulfilment and meaning.

And it is this that we commit to do as a community when we come together in prayer.