Weekly Torah Portion: Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) Is Judaism a Disease?

This week’s Torah portion contains rebuke and dreadful consequences for the Jewish community if we allow Jews to abandon their Judaism. After stating the terrible events that will occur, the rebuke closes by mentioning that the ultimate catalyst for these bad things is “as the result of your not having served HaShem, your G-d, with joy and with good spirit when you had an abundance of everything” (ibid. 28:47). These words are shocking because it seems unreasonable to punish the Jewish people merely because they lack joy. It is obvious that being happy is advantageous and will enhance any relationship-especially one with G-d-but to make it a pillar of Judaism seems to be extreme. Question 1: Why is joy at the root of being Jewish?

The Talmud puts the above rebuke in historical context and says it refers to the period leading up to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans. This is odd because elsewhere the Talmud gives a different-and more famous-reason for the destruction of the second Temple; there was baseless hatred among Jews. When we lack harmony and senselessly hate one another, we lose the right to have our own special location (Jerusalem and the Temple) in this world. On one hand it seems the Temple was destroyed due to lack of joy but on the other hand the reason seems to be because of senseless hatred; which was it? Question 2: Was the second Temple destroyed due to baseless hatred or was it because of a failure to serve G-d with joy?

When we think about both reasons we realize that they are actually intertwined even though they appear to be contradictory. The underlying cause of the destruction of the Second Temple was lack of joy (simcha) because ultimately Judaism without joy will lead to hatred among Jews. Isn’t that, you ask, a big jump; why will an uninspired Jew-i.e. a Jew who has no joy in his or her Judaism-ultimately come to hate another? Whether it’s Shabbos, kosher food, honoring our parents, or any other mitzvah, wouldn’t it be enough to do the mitzvahs as perfect servants with absolute dedication; why do we need to be joyous while doing them?

One who asks this question doesn’t appreciate what being Jewish is all about. Would we ask this same question when discussing marriage: why do you need to be happy when you’re speaking with your spouse, when you’re intimate with your spouse, when you go on vacation and do other activities with your spouse? We all understand that for a relationship to be successful both parties must be happy with the relationship and choose to be in it. The degree of the success in a marriage is determined by how much pleasure each spouse enjoys from the other’s company; the more you enjoy being with your spouse, the stronger, more loving, and happy your will marriage be.

The perspective that one can be happy doing mitzvahs and see them as opportunities is foreign to many Jews because to them, unfortunately, being Jewish is a disease not a joy. Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, quotes an Israeli prominent in public life both in Israel and the diaspora:

One of the most interesting definitions of Judaism that I know is something that I heard…from an Israeli boy. Judaism, he said, is a hereditary illness. You get it from your parents and also pass it along to your children. And why call it an illness? Because not a small number of people have died from it.

Most of us were brought up having to go to Hebrew school and to the synagogue, and we hated both. The experience was boring and lacked depth. When people get older and look for meaning in the various aspects of life-marriage, raising children, jobs, effectively communizing our needs-they look everywhere from self-help books to ashrams to find meaning but never consider the depth, richness, and sheer joy found in the timeless wisdom of the Torah, the source for everything Jewish.

What happens when you are joyful in your Judaism? It’s contagious and you want to share it with others. When one gets involved in a meaningful relationship, (s)he rejoices in introducing his or her significant other to family and friends. When a doctor loves practicing medicine, (s)he will want as many people as possible to benefit from his or her training and expertise; (s)he will want to share it with as many people as possible. However, when one is unfulfilled in a relationship or at work, (s)he will want to avoid talking about it and it will be extremely difficult for that person to be happy with someone else’s happiness and success at home, work, and life.

Happy Jews want to spread the gift of depth and happiness they have discovered in Judaism but unhappy Jews begrudgingly become members at a synagogue because their children need a Bar/ Bat Mitzvah. When their kids ask why they have to go to Hebrew school the answer is, “I hated it too but everyone has to do it.” This unhappy perspective views Judaism as an illness, a disease we are born with. If one gets nothing from the Jewish institutions (s)he has to join, (s)he will be annoyed with the situation because his or her time and hard earned money is being wasted. When someone has to wait in a long line at a government office or for a doctor, or has to pay a mandatory fee or tax, the annoyance causes negative consequences. The most extreme scenario of people being unhappy with a system is when they revolt. When Jews are extremely unhappy with Judaism they too revolt in disgust and seek to destroy that which they hate. What annoys these people the most? The happiness and serenity they observe in other Jews who have found meaning in Judaism.

Now we understand how bad things can happen “as the result of your not having…joy and with good spirit” (in your Judaism). When one is not happy with himself, he cannot tolerate others having any kind of happiness either.

The Second Temple was destroyed because of senseless hatred, which resulted from people who were unfulfilled and unhappy. The unhappier one is, the more damage (s)he causes. The profile of a suicide bomber is never a person with a happy marriage and family, it’s an unhappy loner. Men who abuse their wives are never happy people who just happen to have a few challenges at home. Most unhappy people aren’t this evil but being unhappy does not lead to good things.

Ask yourself (without sharing the answer with anyone), am I happy with being Jewish? If ‘yes,’ ask yourself why and pursue whatever it is that gives you that effect. If ‘no,’ don’t give up; you are just lacking some basic Jewish knowledge.

It is incumbent on every Jew to be happy with his or her Judaism. Happy Jews build communities; the unhappy destroy them. Which one will you be?

Good Shabbos