This week’s parsha contains many brachos, and also numerous klalos. If we follow the path of Hashem, we will be blessed, and if we don’t, we will come to regret having strayed. The enormity of the Tochacha will befall us. Regrettably, as we read the pesukim, we recognize much of our history in golus.
The posuk (Devorim 28:47) states that the cause of the punishment is “tachas asher lo ovadeta es Hashem Elokecha besimcha uvetuv leivov meirov kol – because you didn’t serve Hashem with happiness, for you had too much.”
It would appear that the Tochacha is brought about because people don’t do the mitzvos joyfully. In fact, however, our avodas Hashem includes more than the observance of mitzvos. Serving Hashem must be on our minds as we go about our daily actions. Lacking joy is indicative of a latent sadness brought on by an absence of satisfaction with what we are doing. Someone who is unhappy while performing mitzvos and everyday avodas Hashem doesn’t appreciate what he is doing and is unaware of what he accomplishes when he performs a mitzvah. For that, he is punished.
At the beginning of the parsha, after discussing the concept of bikkurim, and the offering of first fruits, the posuk (Devorim 26:11) says, “And you should be happy with all the good Hashem has given you and your family…” When a person appreciates the goodness that has been bestowed upon him, it is natural that he will be happy.
Those who are blessed “bechol hatov,” and don’t appreciate the source of the blessing, are unhappy souls, as the posuk of “tachas asher lo avodeta” indicates. They have everything they need and more, yet they are morose, for they don’t appreciate that the source of their blessing is Hashem.
People who go through life thinking that they have earned everything they possess due to their own brilliance or actions can never be happy. They always want more. They are never satisfied. If their money, their house, and everything else they own came to them because of their own intelligence and hard work, then they are disappointed when they can’t get more than they already have. These people are upset when they look at others who have more money, a larger house, and fancier car. They are overcome by jealousy that they were not able to achieve what the other person did, because they think it is in their control.
But if you realize that everything that you have is from Hashem, and the amount of money you will earn this year was decided on Rosh Hashanah, then you are satisfied with whatever Hashem gives you. A believing person does not look at what others have, nor does he become jealous if they have more than him. A person who recognizes that he should be thankful for what he has is content and is oveid Hashem b’simcha.
Happiness is a central part of a productive life and a sign of a person who has perfected his middos of emunah and bitachon. Those who know that nothing that happens in their lives is happenstance are not destroyed when confronted by tragedy and sad occurrences.
The Litvisher gaon, Rav Mordechai Pogromansky, represented the greatness of bnei Torah. Even when locked in the Kovno Ghetto, surrounded by death, destruction and deprivation, he never lost his calmness brought about by emunah and bitachon. He remained devoted to Torah and was a source of chizuk to those around him. With the Jews walled into a small, constantly patrolled area, he would tell those who would gather around him that he didn’t see the ever-present German beasts. “I don’t see Germans all around us. I see pesukim of the Torah [from the Tochacha] surrounding the ghetto.”
This Torah giant saw what was transpiring as the realization of the pesukim in this week’s parsha that we read quickly and quietly. He saw those words coming to life. He was able to remain calm, because he knew that all that was happening was, in essence, the realization of the verses. He didn’t see Germans. He didn’t fear Germans. He saw and feared Hashem. He knew that whatever was going to happen was preordained by the Ribono Shel Olam.
Bombs were falling, and devastation and hunger were his daily companions, yet, with depth, sensitivity and brilliance, he sensed the stark clarity of the pesukim of the Tochacha and the reality as expressed by the Torah. Everything around him was merely a reflection of that reality, a cause-and-effect built into creation by the Creator.
A Jew is meant to be joyful. The Arizal told his close talmid that all the revelations that he merited through ruach hakodesh were a reward for performing mitzvos with tremendous joy.
Simcha is attained when there is shleimus, when something is complete. When doing a mitzvah excites a person and brings him to a state of ecstasy, that indicates that he has performed the mitzvah perfectly. Hence the joy.
A sense of calm and satisfaction permeated the Kelmer Yeshiva all year round. Rav Moshe Rosenstein of the Lomza Yeshiva would describe his first visit to Kelm, when he was still a bochur.
“As soon as I entered, a bochur came over to me. He greeted me with a smile and a handshake. He asked me how I was and when I had arrived. He asked me if I had a place to eat and sleep and about my general welfare.
“He was so friendly to me and I was trying to place him. He had to be an old friend I didn’t recognize. A minute after our conversation concluded, another young man came over to me. He was another long lost friend I didn’t recognize. He smiled at me and was so happy to see me. He asked how I was doing, when I came, and if I had what I need. I assured him that all was well and moved along, embarrassed that I didn’t remember him.
“Then another boy came over, and then another one. By the time I was done, it seemed to me as if the whole yeshiva had welcomed me graciously, with smiles on their faces, as if they knew me. It took a while, but then I came to understand.”
Kelm meant treating every person with kindness, whether they knew him or not. Everyone created b’tzelem Elokim is worthy of respect and a smile.
In fact, there was a consensus in Kelm to greet people the same way even during the month of Elul and the period of the Yomim Noraim. The talmidim of the renowned mussar yeshiva were overwhelmed with preparing themselves for the Yom Hadin and did not engage in idle chatter during this somber time. Yet, even then, everyone was greeted joyously and with love, with a beaming face and a smile.
The chinuch we provide our children should involve the joy of doing mitzvos. Too often, mitzvos come across to children as burdens and things they resent because of the harshness with which they are presented. If children are made to feel that the Torah and its commandments are grueling and stress-inducing, they will view them as a burden and not accept them. When they mature, they may be tempted, chalilah, to rid themselves of the shackles placed upon them in their youth.
Yiddishkeit is invigorating and joyous. Learning is exhilarating. And there is nothing as euphoric as Shabbos.
School should be cheerful and inviting. People don’t generally thrive or do well under punishing circumstances, with constant pressure and fatigue or in places where the restrictions are overwhelming. Students who are unable to succeed in a strict environment should be encouraged to switch schools to a more inviting place, where they can flourish and grow into fine bnei and bnos Torah.
Perhaps there was a time when negativity and crushing harshness were effective with children and adults, but those days have passed, as is evident by the many dropouts and at-risk youth. We have to bring back the everyday pride everyone felt about being a frum Jew and the merriment with which people were infused.
We all face challenges. The tendency to become saddened by life’s burdens is understandable. But why lead a life of sorrow when, no matter how bad a person’s condition is, there is reason to smile and hope? There is always something to be happy about. Hashem created you and watches over you. It is He who has given you challenges, and it is He who will help you overcome them and succeed.
The courage to understand that is the theme of Elul.
In this week’s parsha, we read (28:1) that if we adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.
It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos – Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”
The Ramban cites the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4), which states that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to and support Torah, but fail to do so. People who shirk that responsibility are included in this arur. Even if a person is a complete tzaddik, nevertheless, if he could draw others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn’t, he is included in the arur.
The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54), which says that one who has the ability to protest against wrongful actions of the people of his town and fails to do so is punished as well. One who reproaches his fellows and causes them to return to proper behavior, thereby enhancing kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.
The Chofetz Chaim would conclude that to receive those brachos, each person should use his abilities for the causes of Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.
As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek zechuyos so that we will merit being inscribed in the book of tzaddikim.
As the world spins out of control and rogue nations gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek to be included with those the posuk refers to as “boruch, the blessed ones.”
We must all use our strengths and abilities for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.
Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and help increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn and worthy causes to support. Let us inspire others to do the same.
Look at the kindness extended to victims of Hurricane Harvey and the overflowing boxes of donated goods at every Seasons store, waiting to be trucked to Houston. We are a great people, but it shouldn’t take a hurricane to bring out our goodness, and there are plenty of people around us who can use support.
Let us always be kind and thoughtful, always thinking about other people, and treating everyone as a tzelem Elokim.
Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch, our mesorah, and what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.
May we earn the brachos for a year of success, good health, parnossah, happiness and shleimus.