Is serving God without joy reason enough for the warnings of the great rebuke (Deuteronomy 28:15-69) to be unleashed on the Jewish people? Evidently yes. But how are we to understand the gravity of this offence?
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk provides two fascinating approaches. It is possible, he suggests, to observe the commands and to forget God entirely. When observance is turned into a mechanical rote of conduct, rather than fervent obedience to His word, we have simply forgotten God. Then, warns Moses, God will respond by forgetting us and leave as to the vagaries of life and history.
Alternatively, the joy and gladness described in the verse refers to the manner in which we neglect our religious responsibilities. It is one thing for disobedience to be characterised by pangs of conscience and regret, a sense of grief at having failed. But it is altogether another proposition to proudly, resolutely and joyously reject our heritage and turn our backs on our faith.
As we approach the New Year, we will doubtlessly take stock of what we have done over the past 12 months. As human beings we will clearly have made mistakes. Of that there is no doubt. The critical question we need to be asking ourselves is whether we feel remorse and regret, or if we discard what we have done in a high-handed manner. One approach draws us closer to God and our fellow, while the other creates a greater distance.
During the period of compassion and forgiveness in the month of Elul, we are granted the opportunity to change and improve. Sincere remorse marks the critical first step towards this direction.