Our emotional experience sometimes seems to come out of nowhere. When we try to understand what makes us feel a certain way, we are often left with more questions than answers. Varying theories exist to explain how and why we experience emotions. One such approach, which is gaining popularity in the field, is referred to as the cognitive theory of emotions. In short, this approach holds that emotions are generally based on appraisals and tied to goals. Positive emotions, such as happiness, derive from an assessment, either consciously or unconsciously, that we are moving toward accomplishing a goal. Negative emotions, such as sadness or regret, are generated when a goal is blocked.
One of the reasons the Torah offers for why the horrible curses delineated in Parshat Ki Tavo could befall Bnei Yisrael is “[b]ecause you did not serve the L-rd your G-d with joy and with goodness of heart when you had an abundance of all” (Devarim 28:47). Rabbeinu Bechaye and others understand this verse as highlighting the essential element of joy that should be present when serving G-d. Being happy is a vital and necessary component in the performance of mitzvot. This can be understood from a cognitive perspective, as being happy when following the Torah is a signal that our appraisal and goal systems are aligned with G-d’s commandments.
Yet there are two strong arguments against such an understanding of the pasuk. First, as Rabbi Moshe Alshich contends, it doesn’t fit within the broader explanation for the curses that permeate the chapter, namely that the Jewish people in this scenario are not serving G-d at all, not that they are serving Him without the requisite joy. Second, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. If Bnei Yisrael are keeping all of the mitzvot, but are just not happy while doing so, does it really make sense to punish them with such harsh curses?
Perhaps because of these questions, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk understands the pasuk differently. The verse, he says, is not indicating that the punishment will come for not serving G-d with joy; the punishment will indeed come for not serving G-d at all. Rather, the pasuk is explaining how it could come to be that the Jewish people would devolve into a place where they wouldn’t be serving G-d – and that is because of the joy and happiness they are experiencing instead from their material wealth and abundance of physical good. In a similar twist, the Yehudi HaKadosh of Peshischa argues that worse than the Jewish people not serving G-d at all is that they would enjoy not doing so. The fact that they could enjoy a lifestyle not aligned with G-d demonstrates that their goals and appraisals are distorted and misplaced.
Commenting on the joy Bnei Yisrael experienced while sinning with the Golden Calf, Rabbi Moshe Alshich argues that it is one thing to violate commandments, but it is much worse to be happy about it. Ideally, he writes, referencing the aforementioned pasuk, we should serve G-d with joy. In the chance that we sin, the proper emotional response should be sadness and regret. Our goal is to serve G-d, and when we do so, we should experience positive emotions. If we fail in our goal, we should feel a healthy degree of negative emotions to motivate us to fix the problem. Someone who is happy when sinning has no chance of repenting.
As we continue to traverse the month of Elul and progress toward the Yamim Noraim, we would do well to reflect on whether our goals are aligned with the Torah’s. If they are, we should experience joy and happiness that we are living a life of Torah and mitzvot. If they are not, we should feel a healthy amount of sadness and regret that should motivate us to try harder and to improve our relationship with G-d.