In this week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Ki Tavo, we read something known as the tochacha. The tochacha is a long list of terrible calamities that Moses prophesizes will befall the Jewish people in the future. Toward the end of the passage, Moses informs us why such awful things will happen to the Jewish people — “tachas asher lo avadta et Hashem Elokeicheim b’simcha” (because you didn’t serve God with happiness).
What does it mean to serve God with happiness? Does it mean that we should dance every time we give charity? That we should walk to synagogue with big smiles plastered on our faces? I would like to suggest that serving God with joy is a little deeper than that.
Allow to me share with you a parable about a little boy named Sam. Sam is 2 years old and loves running into the street. If he is playing on his front yard and his father turns the other way, Sam immediately darts into the street. His father tries to discipline him, and so every time little Sammy runs into the street he is scooped up and put inside their home for a timeout. Sam obviously does not appreciate this, and so he kicks, thrashes and cries.
Now, if we were to step into Sam’s mind for a moment, he would probably be thinking that his dad is a terrible person. “I’m just trying to have fun! Why do my parents always get in the way?”
In reality, his father loves him dearly, and that’s exactly why he disciplines him. His father brings him inside so he won’t get hurt.
Often, we view the mitzvoth like Sam views his dad — as an obstacle to avoid so we can have fun. We see the Torah as a set of obligations and restrictions that hold us back from fulfilling our life’s goals and heart’s desires. Those who choose to adhere to the Torah in part or in whole must somehow avoid all the obstacles (read mitzvoth) to enjoy themselves. That is the meaning of “not serving God with happiness.” It means I am giving, I am good, but my good deeds are a nuisance and a bother.
By placing such an emphasis on our state of mind when performing mitzvoth, the Torah is teaching us that our attitude is at least as important as the action itself. The Torah is teaching us that there is immense value in viewing the positive things we do as an opportunity and not as an obstacle.
That’s the message of “serving God with joy.” It’s about doing whatever it is we do, whether it’s lighting Shabbat candles, giving charity or fasting on Yom Kippur, with a healthier attitude. It’s about recognizing that like Sam, our father, God, is asking us to do these things because He truly loves us.
With Rosh Hashanah around the corner, I wish you all a year filled with sweetness and joy in the good deeds that you do and a happy and healthy New Year. Shana tova!
Rabbi Yisroel Motzen is spiritual leader at Ner Tamid Congregation.