What is arguably the most shocking pasuk in the entire Torah is in this week’s parshah. No, it’s not any of the descriptions of horrors in the portion of the parshah we call the tochacha, although it does lie within that portion.
It is the pasuk that identifies why the horrors can happen: “Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with happiness and joy of heart amid abundance” (Devarim 28:47).
Some commentaries parse that pasuk to mean, in effect, that “you did not serve Hashem, which you should have done with happiness amid abundance.”
But Rabbeinu Bachya (and the Rambam seems to regard the pasuk similarly) reads it very differently, as effectively saying: “You served Hashem, yes, you did His will, but without happiness, despite the abundance.”
In other words, the tochacha’s terrors are the result not of any lack of mitzvos, davening, acts of chesed or studying Torah, but rather of doing all those things, but doing them joylessly.
The importance of simchah is actually presaged in the parshah in its opening law, bikkurim. There, the bringing of first fruits is accompanied with a command to “rejoice in all the goodness that Hashem your G-d has given you” (Devarim 26:11).
How, though, can one be commanded to be happy?
The question is based on a falsehood, that happiness is something that happens to us, not something that we can choose.
To be sure, it is not always easy. The key to achieving joy lies in the words “amid abundance” and “all the goodness” in the pesukim above.
That is to say, in pondering – seriously, deeply and constantly – all that we have. The trees and the rain, the laughter of children, the beating of our hearts, the roofs over our heads.
In stopping, when we find ourselves grumbling over the supermarket being out of the particular brand of hot sauce we prefer and marveling instead at the wild bounty of foods filling the store’s scores of shelves, utterly unimaginable to someone living a mere century ago. In thinking, as we enjoy a luscious piece of dark chocolate, that 99% of humanity over millennia never even had the chance to experience that taste.
Knowing that heat in the winter is available to us with the push of a button. That we have air conditioning, computers, cars, indoor plumbing… There is no limit to the list.
Happiness doesn’t happen. It is achieved. And we are commanded, indeed privileged, to achieve it.
© 2021 Rabbi Avi Shafran