Why does misfortune befall the Jewish people? While there is no simple answer to this complex problem the Torah offers a fascinating and perhaps startling insight into the cause of our misfortune. The Torah in parshat Ki Tavo lists the blessings and rewards which will follow from our observance of the Torah, followed by a series of curses and punishments for ignoring its dictates. This list of 98 curses, which is always read shortly before Rosh Hashanah , is so terrible that the custom developed to read it quietly as if to say what we don't know about can't come back to hurt us (though some said we should read it even louder so people will know loudly and clearly what can be expected for disobedience).
The curses include items such as "We will be cursed in the city and in the field; there will be misfortune, confusion and frustration; Our corpses will be food for the birds of the sky; when you betroth a man another will sleep with her; your sons and daughters will be given to a foreign nation; you will go insane from what you have to witness".
The Torah tells us that this is happening "because you did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart" (27:47). What an amazing statement. Serving G-d is not enough; it must be done with joy. And if not..A person who grudgingly follows the Torah is not really serving G-d, rather they are usually bowing to some sort of societal pressure, be it parents, a spouse or their neighbours.
In our daily prayers we quote the verse (Psalm 100) "We are to serve G-d with joy". We all know that when working towards an important goal no challenge is too tough, no hurdle is insurmountable and no barrier can stand in our way. Every step that brings us closer to our goal gives us joy, satisfaction and pleasure. For the Jew every moment we have is an opportunity to move a step closer in making this world a better place, in bringing the Divine into the world. How can we not be full of joy?
A religious human being gets pleasure from being in the presence of G-d. The Torah equates Lifnei Hashem , being before G-d with Simcha , joy (see Leviticus 23:40). It is for this reason that the Jew was obligated to travel to Jerusalem and the Temple for the holidays of Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot, holidays where the Torah mandates V'smachta bechagecha , that we are to rejoice during our festivals. While the Divine presence is everywhere it is most acute at "G-d's home address" at the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. If serving G-d does not bring happiness then there is something wrong in our approach to serving G-d and if not corrected punishment may be just around the corner.
Simcha in Jewish thought is always associated with helping others. "You shall rejoice in your holiday along with your son and daughter...the Levite (who in ancient times did not own any land), proselyte, orphan and widow" (Deuteronomy 16:14). Selfishness and true happiness are mutually exclusive. G-d is the epitome of sharing and giving to others. Since simcha is equated with being close to G-d simcha must perforce mean helping others.
It is tragic that our society equates happiness with material success. While having our material needs taken care of is a prerequisite for the implementation of Torah - If there is no flour there is no Torah (Pirkei Avot 3:21) - it should be recognized for what it is - a means to an end. We live in the most affluent society of all time yet there was probably never a time when so many people were unhappy. It behooves us to focus on true happiness, simcha , by becoming partners with G-d in the ongoing process of creation. We must focus on helping others and thereby bring joy to ourselves. May the year ahead be one of true happiness and simcha for the Jewish people. Shabbat Shalom !