“The Centrality of Joy in Jewish Observance”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Parashat Kee Tavo is one of the two parashiot in the Torah that features the terrifying prophecies known as the “Tochacha,” G-d’s reproof of the Jewish people for not following the dictates of the Torah.

Of all the ominous verses found in this portion, the most frightening for me is Deuteronomy 28:41, which reads: “Bah’nim ooh’vah’noht toh’lid v’lo yeeh’yooh lach, kee yayl’choo ba’sheh’vee.” You shall bear sons and daughters, but they will not be yours, for they will go into captivity. To my mind, this verse represents the Torah’s prediction that massive assimilation will take place among the Jewish people.

It is ironic, you must admit, that we have fast days commemorating the destruction of the Temples, we have Kinot–lamentation hymns–that are recited on Tisha b’Av to recall the crusades. In modern times, we have Yom Ha’Shoah, the day designated to commemorate the Holocaust. All of these mark and recall the physical destruction of the Jewish people, which, of course, over the ages, have resulted in massive and heartbreaking losses. It seems, however, as if the spiritual loses have been ignored.

Jewish historians note that at the time of the Second Temple Jews constituted about 10% of the Roman empire. It is estimated that there were about 8 million Jews in the year 48 C.E. With all the physical destruction, all the brutal human executions, statisticians have concluded that despite these massive numeric losses, there should still be approximately 500 million Jews alive in the world today. Nevertheless, our numbers hover at around only 12-13 million Jews worldwide.

Where are the many hundreds of millions of missing Jews? These missing Jews were killed through “kindness,” through assimilation, and through the blandishments of general culture. Over the centuries, more Jews have been lost to the seductive sirens of Canaanite idolatry, Spanish poetry, Italian art, German philosophy and American science, than to Amalek, William the Conqueror, Ferdinand and Isabella, Bogdan Chmelnitski, and even Adolf Hitler. This, of course, is exactly what the Torah predicts only six verses after the prediction of the loss of progeny. Why do the Jewish people sustain these losses, asks G-d in His Torah? Deuteronomy 28:47 reads: “Tah’chaht ah’sher lo ah’vah’d’tah et Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah, b’simchah oov’toov lay’vav, may’rov kol.” Because you failed to serve the Lord, your G-d, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant.

We Jews have so much of which to be proud. Jewish history, as I have noted before in these studies, is one unending series of revolutionary moral and ethical victories, celebrating our people’s unheralded contributions to the world. But we ourselves too often fail to appreciate the scope of these contributions. Instead, we all too frequently emphasize the negative, the expulsions, inquisitions, and horrendous destructions. Perhaps because of this obsession with victimization, we fail to sufficiently emphasize the joy in Jewish life.

I recently visited a family whose six year old daughter died suddenly of an embolism. It was by all measures a great and grievous tragedy. I approached the child’s grandmother with trepidation, a stately and gracious woman, who has done much to help NJOP and Jewish outreach on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her extraordinary hospitality and creativity. Six months earlier, her 18 year old grandson in Israel almost lost his life in a horrible automobile accident that occurred during a fierce snowstorm in the upper Galilee. He was in an coma for many months, and still requires much rehabilitation. Quite innocently, I said to the grandmother, “It has been a terrible year. We pray that the coming year should be one of goodness and health for you.” She simply answered, “We have much for which to be grateful!” It was a heroic response, emphasizing the “silver lining,” despite the many painful clouds. Thinking back, I realized that because of the woman’s inner faith and upbeat nature, I should have expected nothing less than undaunted optimism in the face of adversity from this remarkable person.

Our Bible instructs us, “Iv’doo et Hashem b’simcha” (Psalms 100:2), Worship G-d with much joy. It is not always easy, but it is vitally necessary. One of the great chassidic masters, Rabbi Simcha Bunam of P’schis’cha (1765-1827), once noted that someone searching for their lost article rejoices only when they retrieve the loss. That is what is expected. But seekers after G-d, Reb Simcha Bunam explains, rejoice even in the search (Itturay Torah, Vol. VI, p.167).

This is the lesson that the Torah is trying to convey. It is not sufficient to be joyous on Purim, or on Simchat Torah, or after the sounding of the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. True seekers of G-d know that the process itself can be an endeavor of joy. True seekers of G-d know that, as the Chofetz Chaim (R’ Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, 1838-1933) notes (Mishnah Berurah 60:7), “Kah’vanat ha’lev la’mitzvah ahtz’mah,” there is a sense of fulfillment that brings on joy just from the process of performing a mitzvah. The process of giving charity, of visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, is and should be a joyous process, a fulfilling process, which makes the heart swell.

More than anything else, what is needed in Judaism today to help stem the horrific losses that we are sustaining as a result of assimilation is the transferal of not only a sense of joy, but an emphasis on how the process of seeking G-d and finding G-d brings joy to each and every one of us.

May you be blessed.