Late in this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, there's a set of blessings and curses. Torah promises us that if we follow the mitzvot and walk in God's ways we will be blessed with abundance, and if we turn away we will experience curses. And then Torah says:
Because you would not serve Adonai your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve -- in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything -- the enemies whom Adonai will let loose against you. (Deuteronomy 28:47-48.)
Some of us may struggle with the notion of a vengeful God Who would repay us for breaking faith in these ways. (That's certainly not my God-concept.) But what happens if we read the verse not prescriptively but descriptively? In other words: this isn't about what God will "do to us" if we turn away from the mitzvot. This is about the natural consequences of choosing to turn away from a path of holiness.
Does the idea of serving make us uncomfortable? Maybe we want to say, I'm nobody's servant -- I live for my own self! But in Torah's frame, that's an impossibility. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm: not so that we could be self-sufficient and serve our own needs, but so that we could enter into covenant with God and serve the Holy One.
Everyone serves something. That's a fact of human life. The question is what we will choose to serve, and how.
In Torah's understanding, either we can dedicate our lives to serving the Holy One of Blessing -- through the practice of mitzvot both ritual and ethical; through feeding the hungry and protecting the vulnerable; through cultivating gratitude for life's abundance; through working to rebuild and repair the world; through the work of teshuvah, turning ourselves around -- or we can turn our backs on all of that.
And if we turn our backs on all of that, says Torah, we will find ourselves serving a master who is cruel and uncaring. Maybe that master will be overwork. Maybe that master will be a political system that mistreats the immigrant and the refugee. Maybe that master will be whatever we use to numb ourselves to the brokenness around and within us.
But there really isn't any other choice. We can't choose not to serve. We can't choose to be completely self-sufficient and not bound in relationship -- that's not how the world works. In Torah's stark framing, either we can serve God or we can serve something else, and the inevitable fruits of serving something else will be disconnection and lack and facing down a slew of internal enemies.
This is not to say that if we are facing internal enemies like anxiety and depression, it's a sign that we've turned away from the mitzvot or turned away from God. Many of us are plagued by those internal adversaries, and I thank God for the abundance of tools at our disposal for helping us deal with them, from therapy to spiritual direction to all of the practices that can help us maintain an even keel.
Being servants of the Divine doesn't mean we'll be spared those challenges. But Torah says that if we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll meet with what feels like enmity. If we turn away from the obligation to serve, we'll experience lack -- maybe because our needs won't be met, and maybe because we won't have cultivated the mindset that would enable us to feel grateful for what we have.
Choosing to serve God means choosing to be in relationship. It means choosing love, and choosing hope, and choosing ethical actions, and choosing spiritual practice, and choosing to work toward repairing both the broken world and our broken hearts. Choosing to serve God means choosing to be attentive both to the needs of others and to our own neshamot, our own souls.
As you walked into this sanctuary this morning you may or may not have noticed the words emblazoned over the doors: עבדו עת–ה׳ בשמחה / ivdu et Hashem b'simcha, "Serve God with joy." Over our ark is the other half of the verse from Psalm 100, באו לפניו ברננה / bo'u l'fanav birnanah, "come into the Presence with gladness."
The question I invite us to sit with this morning is this: what does it mean to serve the One with joy? Is the verse urging us to serve God and to do so joyously -- or to cultivate joy and make that a form of holy servive? And what would it feel like to come into the Presence with gladness: to feel in our hearts and know in our minds that we are surrounded and suffused with holy Presence, and to be glad?
What would it look like, what would it feel like, to do our teshuvah work from that place?
This is the d'varling that I offered at my shul this morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)