Lech Lecha | Finding Happiness in the Commandments
Updated: May 6
This week’s parsha, Lech Lecha, begins with G-d’s famous command to Abraham to go to the land of Israel: Lech lecha, “leave your country and your place of birth and your father’s house and go to the land that I will show you.”
Our Sages list this as one of Abraham’s ten tests. He was tested to heed the word of G-d even at great personal sacrifice, emphasised by the verse stating that he had to leave his country, his place of birth, his father’s house – each one being a major step. Furthermore, he was not even told where he was going, only “go to the land I will show you.” This required tremendous faith and self sacrifice on Abraham’s part.
Our attitude toward the commandments
This raises an important question: what should be our attitude toward fulfilling the commandments? When Abraham left his homeland, did he view it as a painful duty he had to perform because it was the right thing to do, or did he want to do it?
Many people view the fulfilling of the commandments like taking an exam. We have to write an exam, so to speak, and we hope to tick off all the commandments and not commit any sins. We want as many ticks and as few crosses as possible till eventually, after 120 years, the Great Invigilator in the Heavens will say put your pens down and we will go upstairs to deliver our exam papers, hoping that we have passed.
The problem with viewing our Judaism as an exam is that nobody likes to write exams. We all know there is no joy or sense of freedom like walking out of the exam room after we have finished. Who wants to be in a perpetual state of writing exams? Is that what Judaism is about?
One of the thirteen principles of faith is that we are going to be rewarded for our good deeds and punished for our bad deeds in the world to come. So in a sense, we are writing an exam. But that should not be our attitude. Our attitude must be one of joy.
Keeping the commandments with joy
There is an amazing passage in the Rambam which relates to the festival of Succot, which we celebrated just a few weeks ago. The Rambam talks about how Succot is associated with joy. All of our festivals are joyous, but Succot is especially so. Right at the end of his discussion of the laws of Succah and Lulav, the Rambam teaches us a general principle, that hasimcha sheyismach adam b’asiyat hamitzvah ub’ahavat haKel shetzivah bahem avoda gedola hee, “the joy that a person has in the performance of mitzvot, and the love of G-d who has commanded us to do so, is a great service to G-d.” It is very important that we do the mitzvot not because we have to, but because we want to, out of love for G-d. We are actually held accountable for how we do the mitzvot, as it says in Deuteronomy, tachat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokecha besimcha uv’tuv leivav, that punishment can befall us “because you did not serve the Lord your G-d with joy and with goodness of heart.”
The Rambam states very clearly that we need to serve G-d not out of a sense of burden and trepidation but rather out of a sense of joy. The question then is, how do we achieve that joy in fulfilling the commandments?
The privilege of being called upon by the King of all Kings
Rabbi Eliezer Papo, a great Sephardi leader born in Bosnia in 1785 and rabbi of the Jewish community in Bulgaria, wrote a book called Pele Yoetz, a classic text on various topics arranged in alphabetical order. One of his essays is on the concept of simcha, joy. He talks about the importance of doing the commandments with joy, and that our pursuit of happiness is not just a pursuit of happiness in itself but the pursuit of happiness specifically in the performance of mitzvot. He gives the analogy of a king who asks his subjects to carry out certain tasks. To modernise this analogy a bit, picture the scene: the phone rings and somebody answers it and comes running to you to say that the office of the president is on the line because the president wants to talk to you. You dash to the phone. President Jacob Zuma is on the line and he says to you, I have an important job that I need you to do and only you can do it, and then he tells you what to do. So you say, certainly, with pleasure, it would be an honour, and you put down the phone. The first thing you would do, even before doing what he asked you to, is tell all your family members and friends what just happened. Chances are you would be feeding on this story for months if not years to come, telling people over and over about the day the president called you and asked you to do something for him. There is a very deep psychological response that we all have when we are asked to serve a president or somebody in a high-powered position. No matter how great a person you are, there is a great honour that you have in serving someone in power.
Says the Pele Yoetz, if you can feel so excited, honoured and overjoyed to receive instructions from an earthly king, from one who is here today and gone tomorrow, a mere mortal, flesh and blood prone to human frailties and vulnerabilities, how much more so should we be honoured when we get a request from G-d Himself, the King of all Kings who is immortal, all-knowing, and all-powerful. At the end of the day, no matter how great the president is and no matter how great a king is, they are flesh and blood, only human beings. If we can be so honoured by their request, all the more so should we be honoured that G-d has chosen us to fulfil his commandments. G-d has asked us to do the commandments and it’s a personal request to each one of us because although G-d gave the Torah to the entire people, we each have our individual tasks. The Pele Yoetz says we should view every commandment that we do as a gift, as a unique privilege, because we are being given the opportunity to serve the greatest King of all. This is what is means to find joy in fulfilling the commandments.
The commandments are about joy
The Pele Yoetz takes this idea further: so many of the commandments are actually about joy, our own personal joy. For example, the commandment of Shabbos. G-d says celebrate Shabbos: sit around the table with your family and friends, with good food, with songs and words of Torah. Have a good time, says G-d, and I will reward you for that. Not only that but G-d actually pays for our expenses. The Talmud in tractate Beitza page 15b says that G-d promises he will cover the costs of Shabbos. Whatever we spend on Shabbos to make it beautiful and holy, G-d settles the account.
To use another modern-day analogy: what would be if the president calls you up and says, do yourself a favour, take your family out to a great restaurant. Enjoy the food, the company, and give me the bill – and if you do that, I will give you a presidential certificate for excellent service. This is what G-d does every week on Shabbos. Especially in modern times Shabbos is all the more poignant, giving us more than 24 hours of peace of mind – no cell phones, no cars, no tumult, no noise. G-d says sit and enjoy, and for that I will reward you. The expression the Pele Yoetz uses to describe this is hayesh cheich matok mizeh – is there anything sweeter than this? Cheich in Hebrew is a palate; there is nothing sweeter to the palate than this.
Elevating every-day tasks to the level of mitzvot
The Pele Yoetz gives another example of where G-d actually wants us to do things for our own benefit: prayer. G-d asks us to pray to Him three times a day and ask for whatever we want. Normally, no one likes to be asked for things, no one likes to be nagged. (This is what children rely on to get what they want from their parents – they nag and nag and eventually the parents will give in to the child, against their better judgment, because they just cannot stand to be nagged anymore.) Yet G-d says, come and ask what you want, not once but three times a day; and if you do that and ask Him for whatever you want three times a day He will reward you for it. Hayesh cheich matok mizeh, is there anything sweeter than that?
There are so many other things that we do for our own benefit for which G-d gives us reward. For example, eating, sleeping, drinking – these are all things that bring us pleasure and G-d says if we do it for the sake of a mitzvah we will actually get rewarded for it even though we are getting such personal benefit from it. G-d rewards us for these things because we do them in order to have the energy to keep the mitzvot and do what we need to do in this world. People think that going to shul in the morning is a G-dly experience, and feel a letdown when they then go out to work, as though it is not a place of service of G-d. But this is not so; going out to work can also be for the service of G-d. If you work with honesty and integrity, if you work in order to earn an honest living to help support your family with dignity and be able to give charity – for all of that G-d gives you reward, even though you are getting a lot of personal benefit from it. G-d wants us to do things which benefit us. We just have to keep in mind that we are doing what we are doing with intention of a mitzvah.
Rav Yisrael Salanter, another one of our great leaders, gave the example of a shoemaker to illustrate this point: when a shoemaker is making shoes he can think, I am simply making the shoes in order to earn money. Or he can think, I am making these shoes because the person who is going to wear them needs protection from stones, the heat and the cold. If he is making the shoes with the intention of helping the wearer of the shoes then every stitch that he sews in the shoe is actually a mitzvah. So, too, whatever work we do can be viewed as a mitzvah, because every profession in the world is actually providing a service – be it people in the medical profession, in businesses, people providing a service or supplying goods – these all benefit humanity. If we have in mind that we are doing what we are doing not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the mitzvah as well, we get rewarded for that.
Having faith in G-d brings us joy
Another one of our great rabbinic thinkers, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, known as the Alter of Slabodka, says the prime example of a commandment that brings joy is the mitzvah to have faith in G-d. Having faith in G-d does not mean that we believe that everything is going to turn out exactly the way we want; rather, that whatever ultimately happens in our lives is part of G-d’s plan. Whether we experience it as pain or pleasure, it is part of G-d’s plan and there is great comfort in knowing that life is not random, that G-d is in control, that gam zu l’tovah – in some way this is ultimately for the good even though we cannot see it at the time.
The Western world pursues happiness as the ultimate goal. The Torah teaches us that we do not pursue happiness as an end in itself; we pursue mitzvot, good deeds and through the mitzvot we find happiness. We cannot “chase” happiness; to borrow from what the Talmud says about honour – that whoever chases after honour, honour runs away from him – if we chase happiness it is going to elude us. But if we chase mitzvot, if we seek to do the right thing and live in accordance with G-d’s commandments, then we will find joy.
Every moment of life can be transformed into a mitzvah. Every moment has the potential to be elevated to joyful serving of G-d. It is true that in terms of the thirteen principles of faith there is reward and punishment in the next world and that therefore we have to keep the commandments because G-d will hold us accountable for our actions, good or bad. But our approach needs to be one of love and joy, not one of fear, trepidation and burden.
When Abraham made the journey following G-d’s commandment of Lech lecha, it came with great sacrifice. Yet he did it not with a sense of burden but rather with a sense of privilege. Certainly it was painful, but it was a privilege to able to serve the King of all Kings. His passing this test – and indeed his whole life – serves as an example to all of us of what it means to serve G-d with joy.