In this week’s portion Moshe tells the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 28:63) “that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good…so the Lord will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and you will be torn from…the land [of Israel].”
Is it possible that God rejoices in our destruction?
Rashi quotes the Talmudic interpretation “so the Lord will make your enemies to rejoice over you.” In other words, the nations of the world, rather than God, exult (Megillah 10b).
Another answer can be offered by taking into account the next sentence. There, Moshe tells Am Yisrael that “the Lord shall scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth until the other” (Deuteronomy 28:64). This can be viewed as a blessing. Even if we are attacked, the entire nation of Israel cannot be decimated, as there will always be other Jewish communities in other parts of the world who will live in safety. Hence, even in the exile our continuity is guaranteed, resulting in God’s joy. (See Ramban, Genesis 32:9.)
An alternative suggestion comes to mind. Consider the famous story of Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues who visited the Temple site after its destruction by the Romans. As those in his company cried out, Akiva laughed. When questioned how he could laugh, Akiva responded: As the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem has come true, so too will the prophecy of renewal. Perhaps Akiva was leaning on our very text, which describes God’s joy in the midst of our suffering (Makkot 24b).
My colleague Rabbi Aaron Frank suggested that the biblical term for joy used here – sahs – differs from the word commonly used for joy – simcha. Simcha is total; sahs is God’s joy in protecting us, even when we are most vulnerable.
Note the text recited at a wedding: sos tasis ve-tageyl ha-akarah, which can be understood to mean that Israel, the barren one, is joyous in knowing that no matter how bleak the barrenness, it will be protected by God.
Here the relationship is similar to a parent caring for a child in a desperate situation. Certainly the parent is not joyous but there is sahs in the sense the parent knows he/she is giving all of the love possible to help shield his or her child. In turn, the child is comforted in that love.
No wonder we do not use the term simcha when greeting, as by definition every year brings difficulties and challenges. Still, we pray this be a year of goodness (shanah tovah), the goodness of feeling God’s protection no matter what life doles out.