Rav Menachem Nochum of Rachmastrivka moved to Eretz Yisroel in 1926, about ten years before his passing. Towards the end of his life, when he was old and sick, he attended a Simchas Bais Hashoeivah in Yerushalayim. He was honored with reciting the 15 chapters of Shir Hamaalos. Upon finishing, he was encouraged by his family members to go home and rest, yet, despite his age and infirmity, he simply couldn’t tear himself away from the Simchas Bais Hashoeivah. He sat in the bais medrash and, with undisguised joy, watched the Yerushalmi Yidden dancing, around and around, with profound simcha shel mitzvah.
His son, Rav Avrohom Dov, began to worry about his health and asked his father to return home and rest. Rav Nochumche, as he was known, wouldn’t agree. His eyes continued to feast on the sight of the Yidden dancing with such gusto, his face wreathed in palpable simcha. Finally, Rav Avrohom Dov indicated that the music should stop so that he would be able to accompany his elderly father back to his room.
When they returned to the room, Rav Nochumche told his son, “You have no idea what a pleasure I just had from watching these Yerushalmi Yidden dancing and rejoicing. When I lived in Rachmastrivka, we also danced on Yom Tov, but there is a fundamental difference between Rachmastrivka, Ukraine and Yerushalayim. Yes, there, too, parnossah was not easy, but even the poor had meat for Yom Tov and wine for Kiddush. They had something with which to be b’simcha on Yom Tov. Here, however, I know the matzav of these Yidden. Most of them have nothing at home. They don’t have basic food, let alone meat and wine. They have nothing to bring them simchas Yom Tov, yet look at how they rejoice with Hashem and His mitzvos. This is the purest of the pure simchas Yom Tov!”
The Value of the Tefillin, the Value of a Lesson
When bar mitzvah bochurim from Yerushalayim would go to Rav Nochumche asking him to put their tefillin on them for the first time, Rav Nochumche would always ask the father, in front of the child, how much the tefillin cost and how much their new suit had cost. Why? Because he saw how poor they were and how, despite their poverty, because they so valued mitzvos, they somehow found the money to buy a mehudardike pair of tefillin and a suit. He asked these questions so that the bar mitzvah bochurim would develop a deep appreciation for the chavivus hamitzvos of their parents and learn to emulate them.
In this week’s parsha, we find the Torah telling us that the greatest tochacha comes because we did not serve Hashem with simcha; we didn’t rejoice in His mitzvos.
There is a fascinating Rambam that states, “The simcha that a person should feel when doing a mitzvah, because of his love for Hashem who commanded us to perform that mizvah, is a great avodah. Anyone who prevents himself from experiencing that simcha is worthy of being punished, as the posuk says that [the tochacha transpired] because you don’t serve Hashem with simcha and tuv leivav… (Rambam, Hilchos Lulav 8:15).
The Importance of Simcha
Why is rejoicing in the performance of mitzvos so important? Isn’t it enough to just do what we are told and fulfill the commandments? Why is there such an emphasis on rejoicing in them?
The answer can perhaps be derived from the seminal words of the Mesilas Yeshorim: “A person was only created to take pleasure in Hashem.” Rav Mottel Slonimer explains that the neshamah of a Yid comes from a world of taanug and simcha, pleasure and joy. If a person derives pleasure and joy from spiritual pursuits, he will not have to look for it in other areas. His nefesh will be happy with the spiritual pleasure and joy that it has. Otherwise, it will have to find its pleasure elsewhere, r”l. That is why the Torah puts such an emphasis on performing mitzvos with joy to the extent that the tochacha is fulfilled when there is no joy. Why? Because when there is no joy and pleasure in mitzvos, the pleasures that a person seeks elsewhere are harbingers of the tochacha.
During this period of the year, with the days of Selichos upon us, we engage in introspection and teshuvah. All too often, we take ourselves to task for our failings in the last year. That is certainly an important component in our avodah. At the same time, however, we cannot forget how important and dear to Hashem our simcha shel mitzvah is. When we put on tefillin every morning, we should be suffused with the greatest joy that we are able to perform Hashem’s mitzvah. When we keep Shabbos, we should be thrilled that we have the zechus to keep Shabbos.
Winning the Lottery…Every Single Day
I am reminded of a vort I once heard in the name of the Imrei Emes. The story behind the vort is that the Imrei Emes had received a report that his nephew, a yungerman, was feeling down about his perceived deficiencies in avodas Hashem. He writes:
“I want to tell you that it is not right for a yungerman like you to walk around with feelings and thoughts such as these. The only goal should be to serve Hashem with simcha in everything that you do, both when you engage in mitzvos and when you learn Torah. You should not pay any attention to the yeitzer hora that tries to confuse you by bringing you to depression and causing you to pay excessive attention to dikdukim, minutiae.”
The Imrei Emes concludes his letter with a lottery analogy. He writes, “I am accustomed to explaining the Mishnah (Avos 2:1), ‘Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward and the reward of a sin against its cost.’ A person should make an accounting and think: If someone would give you one million rubles and numerous other rewards on the condition that you don’t put on tefillin [for one day], you certainly will not agree [to give up putting on tefillin]. Now think how happy you will be if you are informed that you received a million rubles. You thus must feel even happier every day when you perform the mitzvah of putting on tefillin or keeping Shabbos or refraining from giving into taavos as you would be if you were given a million dollars…”
Rav Chaim Volozhiner, in his sefer Ruach Chaim, explains the Mishnah that states, “Da ma lemaalah mimcha.” The simple explanation is to know Who is above you, referring to Hashem. Rav Chaim, however, translates it with drush, saying, “You should know that what transpires lemaalah, in the celestial worlds, is mimcha, from you. When a person does a mitzvah properly, there is tremendous simcha in the celestial worlds. That is the power of simcha shel mitzvah. On the other hand, when a person transgresses, he can, Heaven forbid, cause churban in those same worlds.”
Hearing the Audience…
I am reminded of a lesson that I was taught by a choshuve older bochur when I was a young bochur just beginning yeshiva. As a child and young teen before entering yeshiva, I had been a mad baseball fan. This bochur knew how much I was into baseball and told me a baseball moshol that is still vivid in my mind today, several decades later.
“Avrohom, what do you think we can learn from a baseball game?”
I shrugged my shoulders, not knowing where he was going with his question.
He continued: “You know what happens when someone hits a towering homerun or makes an amazing catch? All 50,000 people in the stadium erupt in passionate cheering. The resounding ‘Yay’ can be heard and felt in one’s very bones! What happens, however, when a few minutes later that same player fumbles a routine ground ball, making an error and allowing a run to score because of his negligence? The entire crowd of 50,000 people resoundingly screams, ‘BOOOOO!’ They boo him, showing their displeasure for his error.”
He continued: “Do you know what happens when you do a mitzvah, especially a mitzvah that is difficult? Do you know what happens when you overcome the yeitzer hora, especially when he is enticing you to do something so hard to overcome? The whole Pamalia Shel Maalah, all of the malochim in Shomayim, are celebrating and voicing a collective ‘Yay!’ Entire spiritual worlds are being built in Shomayim as a result of your mitzvah. There is such simcha in Shomayim. However,” he cautioned, “when one does an aveirah, when one is not able to overcome the yeitzer hora and in a moment of weakness transgresses, the polar opposite occurs. Whole celestial worlds are destroyed. An aveirah has a powerful negative impact on the entire world. A collective ‘BOOOOO’ emanates from all of the malochim and celestial beings. It is tragic.”
As we approach these hallowed days, let us all realize that our every action counts. When we display simcha shel mitzvah and realize how lucky we are, the entire Pamalia Shel Maalah celebrates with us. When we overcome our yeitzer hora, because that is what Hashem wants, even if it is on a small scale, we have no idea what simcha we arouse. This alone should fill us with the greatest joy.
Perhaps the profound words of Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin should be the light that will illuminate our paths and our lives this year. Rav Tzadok writes (Tzidkas Hatzaddik 154), “Just as it is a mitzvah to believe in Hashem, so too must one believe in himself. Every person must believe that Hashem is busy with him. Hashem wants nothing more than to hear from him and take pleasure in him.”