D’var Torah: Trembling and Rejoicing

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 September 2019

We often, as we did this evening, sing the words that you find above our ark, “Ivdu et Adonai b’simchah – Serve God with joy”

I like to say that having this verse from Psalm 100 above our ark represents a tefillah mission statement, a statement about what we try to do in our services: that we create a space in which we respond to the world around us with joy.

In doing so we reflect a core idea of Jewish service.   In the words of the Talmud “One should not stand up to pray while immersed in sorrow… but only b’simchah shel mitzvah – rejoicing in the mitzvah”.

At the end of last week’s Torah portion, in the blessings and curses of Deuteronomy, we read that the curses befall Israel: “tachat asher lo avad’ta et Adonai elohecha b’simchah u’v’tuv levav” – “because you did not serve the Eternal, your God, with joy and goodness of heart”.  When the Talmud then asks “eizo hi avodah she’ ‘b’simcha u’v’tuv levav” – “What type of service is with joy and goodness of heart?”  It answers: “Hevei omer zeh shirah” – “You have to say this is song”.  And boy do we sing.  Ivdu et Adonai b’simchah indeed

But there is another very similar sounding phrase in the book of Psalms, taken from Psalm 2.  There we read not “Ivdu et Adonai b’simchah” but “Ivdu et Adonai b’Yirah”.  Serve God with awe.
Alongside our commitment to joy, there is another part of our commitment as Jews – to yirah, awe.

This is a much harder word, and harder to make sense of in a room of diverse theologies.   But whether it is awe of God, awe of heaven, awe of the extraordinary world in which we live, awe of the human capacity for good and not-so-good – as Jews entwined within our simchah we must also have yirah.   And over the next couple of weeks, during Rosh Hashanah, the 10 days and Yom Kippur – the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe – that yirah takes prominence.

Importantly, though, for Jews simchah and yirah are not in tension.  We know that simchah does not require us to be shallow.  And equally Yirah does not ask of us that we be only sombre, that we forget how to sing and dance.

The phrase in Psalm 2 continues Ivdu et Adonai b’Yirah v’gilu bir’adah – serve God with awe and rejoice with trembling.  A wonderful Chasidic analogy say that the trembling should be the trembling of a parent carrying their child on their shoulders as they dance – holding on tight within the joy.

May we over the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, allow ourselves to tremble – to tremble at the knowledge that the world and what we do in it really matters, and so – each year we reflect on that and who we are.  And within that trembling, may we – as always – remember too to rejoice, serving God with awe and with joy.