Joy plays a key role in two contexts in this week’s Torah Portion. One has to do with the bringing of first-fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. After describing the ceremony that took place, the Torah concludes: “Then you will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given you and your family, along with the Levites and the stranger in your midst” (26:11).
The other context is quite different and astonishing. It occurs in the context of the curses in Deuteronomy 28 that ends in bleak despair. The curses in Deuteronomy are provoked simply “because they did not serve the Lord their God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things” (28:47).
Now, joylessness may not be the best way to live, but it is surely not even a sin, let alone one that warrants a litany of curses. What does the Torah mean when it attributes national disaster to a lack of joy? Why does joy seem to matter in our walk with God more than happiness? To answer these questions, we have first to understand the difference between happiness or blessedness and joy. This is how the first Psalm describes the happy life:
Happy/Blessed is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the way of sinners or sat where scoffers sit. But his desire is in the Torah/Law of the Lord; on his Torah/Law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither; and in all that he does he prospers. (Ps. 1:1-3)
This is a serene and blessed life, granted to one who lives in accordance with the Torah. Like a tree, such a life has roots. It is not blown this way and that by every passing wind or whim. Such people bear fruit, stay firm, survive and thrive. Yet for all that, happiness is the state of mind of an individual.
Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which He has invited us as His guests.
Toward the end of his life, having been deaf for twenty years, Beethoven composed one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, his Ninth Symphony. Intuitively, he sensed that this work needed the sound of human voices. It became the West’s first choral symphony. The words he set to music were Schiller’s Ode to Joy.
1 Joyful, joyful, we adore You, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flow'rs before You, Op'ning to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; Drive the dark of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, Fill us with the light of day!
2 All Your works with joy surround You, Earth and heav'n reflect Your rays, Stars and angels sing around You, Center of unbroken praise; Field and forest, vale and mountain, Flow'ry meadow, flashing sea, Chanting bird and flowing fountain Praising You eternally!
3 Always giving and forgiving, Ever blessing, ever blest, Well-spring of the joy of living, Ocean-depth of happy rest! Loving Father, Christ our Brother, Let Your light upon us shine; Teach us how to love each other, Lift us to the joy divine.
4 Mortals, join the mighty chorus, Which the morning stars began; God's own love is reigning o’er us, Joining people hand in hand. Ever singing, march we onward, Victors in the midst of strife; Joyful music leads us sunward In the triumph song of life.
Like Beethoven, Christians who have known suffering, isolation, hardship and rejection, yet never lacked the courage to rejoice are a people that can know insecurity and still feel joy, they can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed.
Notes taken from Rabbi Sacks: Hebrew4Christians: Deuteronomy 28:Psalm 1 and song “Ode to Joy” Beethoven.