Deuteronomy’s Ode to Joy

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Rabbi Laurie E. Green

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo: Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8.

Judaism is about joy. I don’t know about you, but that’s something I was never taught in Hebrew school. But look no farther than Ki Tavo to learn how central joy is to Jewishness.

The word “simchah,” joy, is a theme that flows throughout the entire book of Deuteronomy. The Hebrew root s-m-ch appears 12 times in Deuteronomy. In Moses’ vision of how we are to live in the Promised Land, joy is essential.

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In our parshah, the root “s-m-ch” occurs three times. First, we are commanded to rejoice as we bring the first fruits of our harvest to God. Indeed, gratitude leads to joy.

Next, we are told that when we offer sacrifices, we are to rejoice before God (Deuteronomy 27:7). Shabbat and festivals are occasions for joyful worship.

The final use of the root s-m-ch is confusing at best, and at worst terrifying. Ki Tavo ends with a series of horrible curses. What do we do to deserve these horrific punishments?

“All these curses shall befall you” simply “because you did not serve Adonai your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things” (Deuteronomy 28:45-47).

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught: “Joylessness may not be the best way to live, but it is surely not even a sin, let alone one that warrants a litany of curses. What does the Torah mean when it attributes national disaster to a lack of joy?”

Simchah in the Torah is never an individual matter. A single person may pursue happiness, but alone they cannot experience joy. Joy comes only when we share with others. The festivals are days of joy, precisely because they are occasions of communal celebration:

“You, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, the Levites in your towns, and the strangers, the fatherless and the widows living among you” (Deut. 16:11).

Simchah is joy shared. Joy is what Rabbi Sacks calls “the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others.”

Deuteronomy is not the biblical book most filled with joy. That distinction belongs to Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet. Kohelet uses the word simchah 17 times. That’s more than in the Five Books of Moses. After each declaration on the emptiness of life, Kohelet ends with an exhortation to joy:

“So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to rejoice in his work, because that is his lot” (Kohelet 3:22).

“However many years anyone may live, let him rejoice in them all”  (Kohelet 11:8).

We are alive. We are together. We are breathing God’s air and living in God’s world and that is enough.

We don’t know what tomorrow may bring. Maybe antisemitism will get worse. Maybe the economy will get worse. Maybe a new pandemic will make COVID-19 look easy. Yet, none of that need detract from our joy today.

Our people have had darker times, yet we never lost our ability to sing and dance and share our joy. This spirit is why we have never been defeated, and never will be.

Happiness is a solitary pursuit. It may lead to selfishness and shortsightedness. Not joy. Joy is the holy connection that draws us near to God, other people, our planet and our truest selves.

So we will “serve God with joy,” as the Psalmist declares. After all, joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are. ■

After more than 15 years as a congregational rabbi, Rabbi Laurie E. Green now serves as a hospice chaplain.

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