…because you did not serve the L!RD your G!d with joy… Deut. 28:47
Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1) explained this verse to mean the Jews were happy specifically because they did not serve G!d; that is, they rejoiced in their sins rather than feeling sick with grief over them. In this way we understand Isaac’s blessing, “And it shall be, when you [Esau] grieve, then you will break his [Jacob’s] yoke off your neck”; that is, when Israel doesn’t engage in Torah, then the immediate punishment is that wicked Esau will rule over them (2). Our sages said, “Every place where the word v’hayah, “and it shall be,” is said, there is happiness” (3). That is why it says, “And it shall be, when you grieve…” The happiness is on the part of the Jews, who are happy to desist from Torah, and the punishment is suffering under the yoke of Esau. Thus, one must regret all his sins and fulfill the verse, “My sin is before me always,” and so he is forgiven, as in the saying of the sages, “Whoever sins and regrets it is forgiven immediately” (4).
We learn in the Talmud, “Be cunning in your fear of G!d,” and we learn how to be so from a certain hasid’s advice to his friend, who asked him what to do, since every time he stood to pray his sins were before him, as in chatati negdi tamid, “my sin is before me always,” and the despair he felt prevented him from praying. This hasid told him to strive always to fulfill a different tamid, a different “always” — the verses “I place G!d before me always” and “Be infatuated with her love always” — and then his despair would leave him immediately. This is the meaning of the sages’ saying, “Prayer was established to parallel the tamid sacrifices” (5).
1) 1508-1593, Tzfat, Israel. His Torah commentaries focus on repentance and separating from this world in order to earn a place in the next. 2) Genesis 27:40: the verse comes from Isaac’s blessing to Esau, which is to make up for the blessing taken by Jacob; Rashi reads it to mean, “when you grieve about the blessings he took, because his descendants the Jewish people will surely transgress the Torah, then you will break his yoke off your neck.” Esau is, of course, the archetype of the other nations, and just as Esau sought to punish Jacob, so the nations punish the Jews with oppression; therefore, “Esau’s” breaking his yoke necessarily means gaining the upper hand and oppressing the Jews in turn. 3) Bereishit Rabbah 42. There are two versions of the introductory phrase, “and it shall be” / “and it was” : v’hayah and vayehi. The first implies that what follows is a source of happiness, and the second a source of sadness. 4) This seems to be a pun on the root hal, which can mean both “sick” and “forgive,” to say that forgiveness requires becoming sick with grief. The citations are from Psalms 51:5; Hagigah 5a 5) Berachot 17a; Psalms 16:8 and Proverbs 5:19: both use the word tamid,” always,” and the first also uses the word neged, “before”; Berachot 26b: this phrase also includes the words tamid and neged; the plain sense is that the three daily Amidah prayers parallel the three daily tamid sacrifices, but something deeper is clearly happening here.
Here we have a rare case of Hasidism defending the plain sense of a verse against earlier commentators’ reinterpretation of it. The Alshich rereads the verse from Ki Tavo, which in its plain sense tells us we will suffer if we don’t serve G!d with joy, and uses it to teach that we must be sad when we don’t serve G!d. Comes Hasidism, which loves this particular verse, and renews the Torah’s call for joy, and then takes it another step. Not only must we be joyful when we serve G!d, but even when we don’t — not because we’re glad to have failed our Maker, but because we know that our Maker still loves us and longs for intimacy with us, and so any sin can be forgiven and the damage undone with teshuva. What matters most is that we not cut the bond between us and G!d with our despair; rather, that bond can bring us joy no matter what the circumstances.
I’ll close with a related teaching from Menahem Mendel of Kotzk: All sin springs from not serving G!d with joy…then our service grows cold, and we forget that there is a Creator in this world. But one who knows that there is a Creator will not sin.