David Walk

Be happy, or else!

It’s time again for the annual frightening of the Jews. Every year before the High Holidays we read one of the two sections of the Torah called the TOCHACHA. This term is translated variously as ‘chastisement’, ‘curses’, ‘rebuke’ or ‘be afraid, be very afraid’.  These passages are meant to scare us straight. We’re told in a few verses (13) of the wonderful existence we can anticipate if we ‘heed the voice of God’. Then we’re warned in excruciatingly long detail (53 verses) the fate which awaits those who refuse to obey God and the mitzvot.  Historically, many synagogues didn’t even call someone up for that alarming ALIYAH. Most shuls just read it fast and hushed. 

Clearly, it’s crucial that the nation understands the concept of consequences within the Torah life style. Sin can result in terrible repercussions. But in the midst of this dolorous material, there’s one verse which seems out of place: because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with joy (SIMCHA) and with gladness of heart (TUV LEV), when you had plenty, you will therefore become slaves to your enemies (Devarim 28:47-48). Really? If we’re not happy, we’ll be punished severely!? Can’t we keep the Torah grudgingly? 

The Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh suggests that this verse introduces a new set of curses which are for not fulfilling the positive commandments. The previous punishments were for transgressing the negative precepts. That would explain the new description of ingratitude to God. 

The Shem M’Shmuel doesn’t disagree that we’re discussing positive mitzvot, but adds that SIMCHA in the performance of mitzvot is itself its own independent mitzva. Just as God rewards the person for fulfilling the basic obligation, our Creator also adds merit for the gladness infused into the action. Sadly, we’re presently being informed of the opposite. The punishment for non-compliance of the Torah’s demands includes not performing the mitzva properly, which means without the proper joy. God can do without our ‘attitude’. 

These two mystical masters help us to comprehend this demand of SIMCHA in our mitzva deeds, but what is meant by adding TUV LEV? Some translate this phrase as a continuation of happiness or gladness. But the words really mean ‘good heart’. What is this requirement? 

I think we can get an idea from Rebbe Nachman when he discusses the opposite situation. In the Rebbe’s famous Torah about the importance of always serving God with joy (MITZVA GEDOLA L’HIYOT B’SIMCHA TAMID, Likutei Maharan II 24:4), he states:

It’s appropriate to present one’s appeal (SICHATO) to God with a broken heart (LEV NISHBAR), but that status should only exist for perhaps an hour a day. On the other hand, all day must be spent in joy, because from a broken heart can come the ‘black bitterness’ (MARA SHECHORA, depression). This is a much greater danger than spiritual stumbles caused by joy, God forbid…So, limit severely your periods of LEV NISHBAR. 

Rebbe Nachman is, I believe, teaching us that our curse of becoming subjugated to ‘enemies’ which emanates from a lack of LEV TUV is a psychological result more than a punishment. Perhaps, the ‘enemy’ is the MARA SHECHORA (depression), and that’s why the Rebbe even encourages frivolity (SHTUTA) to help dispel the dark clouds. 

I strongly believe that this approach must lead us to another conclusion presented by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein OB”M. The great Rosh Yeshiva wrote:

It is both psychologically and religiously beneficial for a person to find happiness and fulfillment (maybe: TUV LEV) in what he does. But we encourage this on one condition: that the content and direction of that which makes you feel fulfilled…emanates from God.  

Rav Lichtenstein is urging that we turn our Torah obligations and hard spiritual efforts into our pleasure and fulfillment. To support his point, he quotes the great poet Robert Frost: My object in life is to unite, My avocation and my vocation, As my two eyes make one in sight. 

  Our surprising ‘curse’ is actually guiding us in the direction of a rich and fulfilling existence. Yes, it’s terrible and awful when our commitment to the Torah way of life is without TUV LEV. It leads to a life of misery and depression. However, Rebbe Nachman and Rav Lichtenstein are guiding us in the opposite direction, the road to meaning and fulfillment. 

This conclusion can lead us to another important realization. As we contemplate what we’ve done wrong in last year’s installment of our life, don’t just throw away the negatives, Please, use the mistakes and errors which have led to disappointment and frustration as a guide to take a different route. Hopefully, the Yomim Noraim don’t just set roadblocks against dangerous, negative paths, but erect road signs towards the highway of achievement and contentment. 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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