How lucky we are to have the gift of the Torah and to enjoy the results of our striving to get closer to Hashem.
When Hagaon Harav Shach zt”l was a young boy, his parents sent him to learn in Yeshiva, first in Ponevezh, then Slabodka and then Slutsk. He had almost nothing – little food and ragged clothes – yet he learned Torah day and night. When World War I broke out, he tried in vain to find his beloved parents, but he would never see them again. He was a shy person, reluctant to ask for help. He lived in the Beis Hamedrash, sleeping on a bench and surviving on some small scraps of food that a lady in town would bring him. Rav Shach later said, “If I wrote all the sorrows and worries of my life, the book would be thicker than my four-volume set – “Avi Ezri” – that I wrote. I had no worldly pleasures. Nevertheless, from the day I was mature until now, I have been the richest and happiest man in the world. I never had a moment in my life that I was not happy, because I was learning Torah!”
Parshas Ki Savo has one of the most perplexing verses in the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the 98 curses of the Tochecha (admonitions) listed in the Parsha and warns that all this will happen to you, “Tachas asher lo avadata es Hashem Elokecha B’Simcha“- Because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d with rejoicing (Ki Savo 28:47) Yet, to serve Hashem with Simcha is not one of the 613 mitzvos. So how can it be that the punishment for not serving Hashem with Simcha is this whole list of 98 curses?
Hagaon Harav Avrohom Schorr explains that the Torah is not telling us the direct reason for these terrible punishments. Rather, it is indicating the underlying cause for the person going off and doing so many sins. We humans are pleasure seekers and if we do not find simcha in serving Hashem, we look for pleasures elsewhere. So the cause for all the curses is really the performance of all the sins which arise from the pursuit of physical pleasure and enjoyment, in order to fill the void caused by not having simcha from serving Hashem.
A discerning reader will no doubt ask: “Could it be that man is so base that his whole life centers around pleasure?” The answer is yes! As Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto says in the opening of Mesilas Yesharim: man was created for pleasure and the greatest pleasure is connection to Hashem. Indeed, our lives center around pleasure; however, we do have a choice. We can govern our lives based on strictly physical pleasures, or we can aim higher, seeking spiritual pleasure by connecting with Hashem.
Finding and developing our enjoyment in learning Torah and serving Hashem yields the ultimate pleasure- a platform for infinite growth and connection to Hashem. Rav Shach, in the story noted above, experienced this sweet enjoyment and we all have the capacity to experience (and in many cases already experience) this sweet enjoyment as well.
But truthfully: how do we generate this genuine happiness in serving Hashem if we just don’t feel it? The answer is simple: by recognizing all the good Hashem bestows upon us, every single day. Elul is the very best time to make our accounting for Rosh Hashanah and review this past year. We need to recognize the Hand of Hashem in everything we have: food, clothing, house, spouse, children. When we recognize every gift Hashem has given us, and keeps giving us, that will bring us true joy.
The week prior to Rosh Hashanah, we start waking early and reciting Selichos. Certainly, we need all those prayers for mercy, but why specifically do we wake early in the morning? Normally, we wake early because we have trouble sleeping, because we have a job or responsibility, or because we are excited about the coming day. In the case of waking up early for Selichos, being excited about the opportunity to say Selichos early to get closer to Hashem, is what we want to aim for.
The opportunity to connect with our Creator in a meaningful way and come closer to Him is the source of the greatest happiness. For this, we pray every day in the blessings of the Torah: “V’ha’arev Na Hashem Elokeinu es Divrei Torahsecha” Hashem, please cause us to taste the sweetness of your Torah.
May our taste of Torah be as sweet as the coming New Year.