Ki Tavo – Be Happy
The Mishnah in Berachot (9:5) states that one must bless the Lord for calamities as well as for the good. An example of such a blessing is Barukh dayan ha’emet, recited by mourners upon losing a loved one. Commentaries explain that the intent of the Mishnah is to obligate one to recite the blessing over tragedy with the same fervor and joy with which one recites a blessing over something good. This concept is also reflected in the Psalms we recite in the Hallel prayer. In chapter 116 the Psalmist invokes the name of God when he raises the cup of salvation. Earlier in that chapter the Psalmist invokes the name of God, the very same terminology, when he is beset by trouble and sorrow. The similar terminology indicates a parallel of emotion. The same sense of joy expressed during success and prosperity is recalled at a time of great and dire need.
In our Parshah, Ki Tavo, we are subjected to reading a very long segment of terrible suffering which may befall us (and which has all tragically materialized, especially in the last century). In the course of this passage, dropped in the middle, is a verse which sheds some light on the reason that such tragedies might befall us. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfullness and with gladness of heart, in abundance of everything.” (Deuteronomy 28:47)
This is a curious verse, and commentators extract different lessons from it. On the surface the complaint is not so much that we have failed to serve God, rather the complaint is that when we did so our service lacked joy and gladness.
Our observance of Mitzvot is sometimes reduced to routine, becoming plain and boring. We go through the motions mindlessly, even dragging our feet with the tedium of repetitive ritual. Joy and gladness? We can stray very far from such spirit. Excitement and enthusiasm for wrapping tefillin around our arms every morning can take a big effort, specifically an effort in mindfulness. A Bar Mitzvah boy will likely feel excitement, wrapping his new tefillin for the first time, but day after day, month after month, the excitement wears off. Stopping to light Shabbat candles on Friday night has also become quite routine. While it is not done daily, its repetition each week can cause its gleam to dull, its appeal is blunted. But we continue to perform Mitzvot anyway, because… well, aren’t we supposed to? In health and in sickness, whether with riches or in poverty, we have undertaken as a nation to fulfill the word of God ’till death do us rejoin.’ Adding a measure of excitement and joy is a separate dimension. Not only is it part of the Mitzvah, the verse is informing us here, it is an essential and defining aspect of our relationship with God.
A child in our son’s class is always jubilant. He is constantly beaming, a perpetual grin is displayed widely on his face. I’m sure he is not always this happy, but his excitement is infectious. His bright and joyful face never fails to bring a smile to mine. He is in a stage of discovery, where everything is still fresh and new, full of promise and exploration. Tragically. his eagerness and playful nature will someday become diluted, worn down by the vicissitudes of life, by failures and heartbreaks, by inevitable betrayal and disillusion. We sometimes call this maturity. What a shame that the youthful and refreshing energy does not forever remain. But there will always be a spark of that energy, a delight in new things, a streak of humor which will bring out that grin, albeit fleetingly.
The Torah makes a demand of us, a demand as simple as – be happy. Perhaps no movement has embodied this value more than the Breslov Hassidic movement with their constant song, “Tis a great Mitzvah to be happy.” Many of the Breslov adherents are “born again” Jews who have rediscovered that spark of enthusiasm, infusing their entire existence with a pervasive joy, particularly in the performance of Mitzvot.
Joy is a state of mind which can be cultivated. We know that the myth of buying happiness is well and truly debunked. Wealth does not bring happiness although it can bring many creature comforts. We can choose to be happy, we can choose to connect with our youthful spirit of jubilation. If we could not choose to do so the Torah would not demand that of us. The question is how. How can one light that spark, bringing joy into every action and endeavour? What needs to change in our approach to life, allowing that youthful gladness to shine through our thick armour of “mature” and stoic defenses?
A story is told of a Hassidic master who was teaching to his disciples the Mishna in Berachot, requiring one to bless the Lord over the bad just as one blesses the Lord over the good. He stressed that one must recite this blessing with equal joy even when the event is tragic. One of his disciples demanded clarification. “How is it possible,” he cried, “to experience the same feeling of joy when reciting a blessing of acceptance at a tragic event, that one experiences at a happy event?”
The teacher knew that this was a question that could not be answered with words. To understand how this is possible one has to see it in action. The teacher sent this disciple to ask this question of the famed R’ Zusia of Anapoli, a great Hassidic scholar who lived a life of tremendous suffering and deprivation. The disciple traveled to the town of R’ Zusia and found him in his home. He asked his question to R’ Zusia, anticipating a lengthy and scholarly explanation. But R’ Zusia merely shrugged and said, “How should I know? Nothing bad every happened to me.” R’ Zusha, a man who had experienced untold suffering throughout his life of exile and privation, who was beaten countless times while trudging from town to town, living off the scraps thrown to him in pity, whose bare home screamed of destitution, did not see himself as one who had ever suffered from anything bad.
This is a man who lives in the moment, who sees everything as a gift from God, as his portion in this world. With such an attitude every moment is an opportunity, every Mitzvah is a glorious chance to grow closer to God and serve Him in accordance with His will. R’ Zusia didn’t sweat the small stuff – and to him everything was small stuff. With a little bit of faith and an infusion of optimism we can also raise our level of joy, especially when it comes to performing a Mitzvah.