We should be happy to avoid the Tochachah.
Before bidding farewell, Moshe Rabbeinu delivers the Tochachah, a warning of all the horrific curses and tragedies that will befall the Jewish people should they fail in their religious responsibilities. It’s one harrowing, foreshadowed catastrophe after another – nearly 100 in all! No wonder we are so eager to rush through this leining as quickly and quietly as possible.
As these 50-plus verses can be a lot to take in at once, let us take note of just one: the one that identifies the root cause of all these calamities. Why would such misfortune ever occur?
“Because you have not served Hashem, your G-d, with joy and with gladness of heart” (D’varim 28:47).
The commentators are divided in how to understand this critical pasuk.
Rabbeinu Bechaye, the classic 14th-century commentator, has a remarkable interpretation. The verse implies that the people are serving Hashem – albeit without any sense of happiness or satisfaction. If so, these disastrous curses are not deserved for completely abandoning the mitzvos or engaging in immoral behavior. It is the robotic and unenthusiastic performance of mitzvos that will prove to be so destructive!
According to this approach, it is not enough to simply go through the motions and check off a series of boxes throughout our day. Avodas Hashem must be coupled with an appreciation for the depths of our Torah, and a feeling of how fortunate we are to have an ongoing relationship with our Creator. Performing mitzvos with simchah is not just an exalted level reserved for the elite; it is a standard expected of everyone. Only by studying the wisdom and beauty of the mitzvos can we find meaning and joy in our observance that will prevent our religious obligations from feeling like a series of curses.
However, Rav Baruch HaLevi Epstein zt”l (in Tosefes Brachah) has a very different interpretation of this pasuk. He argues, against Rabbeinu Bechaye, that it is untenable that Hashem would punish B’nei Yisrael so devastatingly if they are, in fact, observing the letter of the law. Therefore, he proposes a very different read of the verse. These curses will befall the nation if they violate the ways of the Torah - and they do these aveiros with a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction. In other words, “joy and gladness of heart” are not descriptions of what is missing from mitzvah observance; they are features of the ultimate rejection of the Torah.
According to this approach, Hashem is understanding when people are drawn toward temptation or struggle with old habits. It is not the technical transgressions themselves that trigger the horrors of the Tochachah. True tragedy strikes only when aveiros become a source of joy, and an anti-Torah lifestyle is embraced as the ideal.
Putting these opposite interpretations of the pasuk together, we can get a sense of the importance of emotion and passion in avodas Hashem. Mitzvos cannot just be “done” – they require a sense of profound contentment. Aveiros may be inevitable – but they cannot become our preferred way of life. As long as mitzvos are joyful and aveiros are not, we can avoid the Tochachah.
The great chasidic master, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev zy”a, would encourage his followers to host extravagant s’udos mitzvah when performing a bris milah. At each party, the Rebbe would turn to Hashem and exclaim, “Ribbono Shel Olam: Look how your beloved children celebrate mitzvos with such joy! True, they may stumble occasionally – but their aveiros are always behind closed doors and with a sense of embarrassment. Only their mitzvos are adorned with a public display of simchah!”
As we continue through Elul – a month named for our beloved bond with Hashem – let us work on renewing a sense of excitement and joy in this relationship!