“Who here is Jewish?” charged the commander of a hostile anti-Semitic army of pre-modern times. There were twenty-three hungry, tired, and weak soldiers standing in nearly perfect formation. The officer shouted again. If there were a Jew amongst the soldiers, he would surely be sent to die in a suicide mission across the border. “I want to know right now! Who here is Jewish?” Of the twenty-three men – seventeen Christians and eight Jews – only two Jews stepped forward. The officer instructed them to step out of line. “Tonight is Rosh HaShanah,” he said; “you have the day off.” Ten days later, on Erev Yom Kippur, the officer instructed his officers, “Whoever here is Jewish can have the day off.” Eight members gracefully left formation with a wide, content grin on their face. The commander stopped them all. “If you weren’t Jewish on New Year’s, then you’re not Jewish today.” Six out of eight returned to their positions. Rav Yisroel Gottlieb explains that there is prophetic truth to this story. One cannot be a Jew for only the solemn days on the Jewish calendar. Judaism is filled with many Mitzvot which one should fulfill joyfully. One cannot appreciate Judaism fully if one come to Shul only on days of fear and awe.
In fact, the Torah explains in Parashat Ki Tavo, “Tachat Asher Lo Avadta Et Hashem Elokecha BeSimcha UVeTuv Leivav MeiRov Kol”, “[You will serve your enemies] because you did not serve Hashem, your God, with happiness and goodness of heart when things were abundant” (Devarim 28:47). Hashem tells us that because we did not serve Him with joy, we will serve other nations whom Hashem will send against us. Additionally, every day during Shacharit, we say the Tefilah of Mizmor LeTodah, in which we say exclaim how we will be serve Hashem out of joy.
Rav Moshe Feinstein explains how the Chumash can tell us to serve Hashem with joy. Just a few years ago, many people were not accustomed to the freedoms we are. They were able to relate to the old Yiddish saying, “Es Iz Shver Tzu Zein a Yid,” “It’s difficult to be a Jew.” When people would sacrifice their jobs to keep Shabbat, they would come home complaining about the hardships of life as a Jew. Rav Feinstein explains that we just have to put our life into perspective. Shabbat is worth millions of dollars. If we would come home every Friday night and ponder how much reward we are getting for keeping Shabbat, we would serve Hashem in the most joyous ways.
Being Jewish is not about being deprived of physical pleasure. Judaism is about raising our physical lives to a state of purity and truth. This lesson is extremely important, as Parshat Ki Tavo, a Parashah about the contrast between good and bad, is read in the heart of Elul, a solemn month. We must remember that even the most solemn days, such as Yom Kippur, are described as happy days in essence, and in the future, even the saddest days, such as Tisha BeAv, will become happy.