תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה' אלקיך בשמחה
“Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy…”
This verse is telling us that the tochacha – the terrible retributions described in this parsha – will come about if the Jewish people do not serve Hashem with joy. The Torah uses the word “tachas,” which may indicate that the Jewish people were given a choice, but they made a bad decision, “tachas” – instead of choosing the right thing. What is the verse telling us?
We say every day in our tefillos, in the chapter of Ashrei, “Fortunate is the person who sits in Your house; he will praise You forever.” These words are telling us how truly fortunate we are to be Hashem’s chosen nation. If a person wants to meet the king, he has to go through a long process of making an appointment and waiting for an audience. When he is finally given an appointment, he is overjoyed at the opportunity. Of course, he will not dare to sit before the king; he will stand respectfully during the entire meeting. Even if he only meets the king once in his lifetime, he will talk about it forever!
And we, the Jewish people, have the opportunity to meet the King of Kings and visit His house – the bais medrash – not just once a day, but three times a day! We may even sit in front of the King. The verse is telling us how fortunate we are to sit in Hashem’s house, and how we must praise Hashem for this special privilege. Just thinking about this should give us immense joy. Imagine – we have the opportunity to sit in the house of the King of Kings as often as we want, during our entire lifetime! How fortunate we are!
The Torah is telling us that “tachas asher” – instead of feeling fortunate (“asher” has the same root as “ashrei”) about having the opportunity to serve Hashem, “lo avodeta” – serving Hashem will be considered worthless (“lo” – nothing). This is the reason for the server punishments listed in the Torah. If instead of rejoicing with our privilege to serve Hashem every moment of our lives we attach no special importance to this great opportunity, then we deserve the terrible retributions described in this week’s Torah portion.
Among the scathing verses of the tochacha, it says, “And you will remain very few.” It is known that Eliyahu Hanavi revealed to us that all curses in the Torah can be turned into blessings. On the surface they appear to be curses, but when the verses are read backwards, they turn into blessings. Rabbeinu Bachya writes: The Torah says, “Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes but you will not eat from it; your donkey will be stolen from you and not returned; your sheep will be given to your enemies and no one will help you.” If the verse is read backwards, we see the following: “You will be helped, your enemies will not receive your sheep, your donkey will not be stolen, your ox will not be slaughtered.”
The same could be said about the verse “And you will remain very few.” The word “venishartem” – remain, has the same root as “ashrei” – fortunate. The verse can now be read: “You will be fortunate even with little.” You will serve Hashem happily, regardless of how much or little you have.” What a special blessing, indeed!
“Because you didn’t serve Hashem, your G-d, with joy.”
The Torah is not telling us that we didn’t serve Hashem. It is telling us that we didn’t serve Him with joy. Is this by itself such a severe transgression that is should bring about all those terrible punishments described in the Torah?
The Rebbe Reb Bunim of Parshischa explained this with a famous parable: A teacher taught the Alef-Bais to his little student, and pointed to each letter: “What is this?” “An Alef,” said the boy. “What’s under the Alef?” asked the teacher. “A kometz,” said the boy. The teacher continued with the other letters, until he reached the Hey.
“What’s this?” he asked. “A Hey,” said the boy. “What’s underneath the Hey?”
To the teacher’s surprise, the boy refused to answer. “I won’t say!” he declared, looking a little scared. After the teacher threatened to punish him, the boy finally stammered, “Underneath the ‘hay’ is the stolen goat…” The teacher finally understood why the boy didn’t want to answer. His father had warned him not to tell anyone what he hid underneath the bale of hay in their barn!
“The same could be said about us,” Reb Bunim would conclude. “Tachas - what lies underneath our apathetic service of Hashem? Why are we not serving Hashem with joy? The answer to this question explains why the Jewish people deserved the terrible tochacha.” When a person performs the mitzvos properly and values the Torah, he serves Hashem with true inner joy. His life has a totally different meaning, and he is deserving of the Torah’s blessings.