Haftarat Shemini: "With Joy"

  • Rav Amnon Bazak


Translated by Kaeren Fish


In memory of Uriel Liwerant, z”l,

who studied Torah with joy and a bright smile,

along with a serious and deep commitment to Torah and yirat Shamayim[1]


PLEASE NOTE: THIS YEAR, 5776, we will be reading the special haftara for Shabbat Para, and not the section reserved for Parashat Shemini. Shabbat shalom.



  1. Serve God with joy


The importance of joy in the service of God


According to the Mishna in Avot (chapter 6), one of the first traits that must be cultivated for the purposes of “acquiring Torah” is that of joy. The traits that precede this may be divided into two main categories: those that are relevant specifically to Torah study (“attentive listening, articulate speech, intuitive understanding, discernment”) and those that are in fact inseparable from the service of God in general, although they have particular significance in the realm of Torah study (“awe, reverence, modesty”) – and joy falls into this category.


Joy has a special place in Divine service in general, and we are all familiar with the verse, “Serve the Lord with joy; come before Him with singing” (Tehillim 100:2). From various sources in Tanakh we learn that service of God must be undertaken with joy: “And all these curses shall come upon you… because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things” (Devarim 28:45-47); “And David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Oved-Edom into the city of David with joy” (Shmuel II 6:12), and more. We must therefore look into the meaning of joy in Divine service in general, and then try to understand why, in particular, it is one of the ways of acquiring Torah.


Does “awe” rule out “joy”?


In exploring the concept of joy, Chazal point out a contradiction between the verse cited above and a different verse from Tehillim (2:11) – “Serve the Lord with fear (or ‘awe’), and rejoice with trembling.” How are we to understand the relationship between these two verses? How can one serve God both with awe and with joy, while these would seem to be contradictory attitudes?


Chazal suggest different solutions for this contradiction. In Midrash Tanchuma on Bereishit (Noach 19) we find:


“The entire psalm is speaking of idolaters. What do we find at the end of the psalm? ‘Serve the Lord with fear; rejoice with trembling. Do homage in purity…’ King David tells [the idolaters], Beware: do not pervert your way, ‘Lest He be angry and you perish in the way…’ (ibid.). In other words, for a slight infraction He will be angry with you. But with regard to Israel, the verse says, ‘Serve the Lord with joy; come before Him with singing.’ This psalm is talking about Israel, for David based it upon thanksgiving, as it is written, ‘A psalm of thanksgiving…’”


According to this interpretation, a distinction should be drawn between Am Yisrael and the other nations. The nations must serve God out of fear, because for the slightest deviation they will be lost. But Am Yisrael, who received a promise of eternal life, serve God with joy.


A different view appears in Midrash Tehillim (Shocher Tov, 100), presenting the distinction as one that is relevant to Am Yisrael themselves:


“‘Serve the Lord with joy’ – but elsewhere it is written, ‘Serve the Lord with fear.’ If [one serves Him] with joy, then how can there be fear? And if [one serves Him] with fear, how can there be joy?


  1. R. Ayevo said: When you are in the world, be joyous in prayer, and be fearful before the Holy One, blessed be He.
  2. A different interpretation: [The verse says,] ‘with joy’ – can [Divine service] be devoid of fear? [Obviously not,] therefore the [other] verse says, ‘with fear.’
  3. R. Acha said: ‘Serve the Lord with fear’ – in this world, in order that you may arrive in the World to Come with joy, and see, in the time to come, the trembling that will seize the flatterers; you will rejoice because of the trembling that I brought upon the nations.”


The relationship between the three interpretations in the midrash is interesting. The third possibility is in fact the opposite of what we previously saw in the Midrash Tanchuma. In this world, according to this view, there is no room for Divine service with joy; fear should guide us. One who serves God with fear in this world, will merit to be joyful in the World to Come.


The first explanation proposes that there is indeed room for joy in this world, but it is limited to the realm of prayer. This would seem to refer to a teaching found in Yalkut Shimoni (Tehillim 623):


“One verse reads, ‘Serve the Lord with fear,’ while another verse reads, ‘Serve the Lord with joy.’ What, then, is one to do? When he stands in prayer, he should be joyful that he is serving the God, like Whom there is no other in the world, and he should not behave in a frivolous manner before Him, but rather with fear.”


It seems, then, that even according to this interpretation, the essence of Divine service is performed with fear, but during prayer a person should rejoice that he worships God, and not pagan deities. The joy that he feels relates to the privilege of serving God, but the service itself should be characterized by fear or awe.


A similar idea is expressed by R. Yosef Albo in his Sefer Ha-Ikkarim (3:33):


“Accordingly, we might ask: if the service of the blessed God can be achieved wholly only through joy and gladness of heart, but it was previously explained that the essence of the service of the blessed God should be [performed] with fear, and fear is something that causes the heart to tremble and saddens it, then how can the service of God be achieved with sadness and joy together, they being opposites?


This contradiction can be resolved as followed: every ability that a person has, when carrying out its action as it should be carried out, indicates the wholeness [perfection] of that power. And if it does not carry out its action as it should, this indicates some deficiency in that power, or a deficiency in his wellbeing. Just as the proper state of man is not to fear that which should not be feared, so his proper state is to fear that which should be feared. If he does not fear that which should be feared, this is a deficiency. Someone who does not fear placing his hand in the fire will thereby demonstrate either a confusion of his intellect or a lack of feeling in his hand… Likewise a soul, when fearing and dreading that which should be dreaded, demonstrates the wellbeing and wholeness of its intellect. And as the level of the soul and the wholeness of its intellect rise, so it perceives to a greater degree the transcendence and grandeur of the blessed God, and he dreads Him more, and fears violating His word.


And when a person identifies this level of fear in his soul, he should rejoice and be glad in that fear, because it indicates the wellbeing of his soul and the wholeness of his intellect. And [King] David explains this elsewhere: the verse ‘Serve the Lord with joy’ does not mean that he should serve Him with gaiety and frivolity, in the way of the simple people, but rather it is proper that his service be with fear, and so he said, ‘Serve the Lord with fear, and be glad with trembling.’ In other words, the essence of the service of the blessed God should be through fear and trembling, as the soul tries to grasp the majesty and transcendence of God, and fears Him, since [the soul] is of lowly value and He is great. And it should rejoice and be glad in that fear and trembling because it apprehends that awesome concept that should indeed be feared, which is an indication of the wholeness and wellbeing of its intellect. Thus, through this joy that one achieves, his service is whole, and therefore [King David] says, ‘be glad with trembling’ – indicating that the joy represents the rounding off and completion of his service.”


R. Yosef Albo, too, maintains that the “essence of the service of God” consist of fear, and he, too, takes an “external” view of joy: if a person serves God out of fear, this testifies to a healthy spiritual state, and therefore a person should be happy (about his state of fear). According to this view, too, the joy arises from the service of God with fear.


Joy and fear as complementary traits


The second solution proposed in the Midrash Tehillim above is fundamentally different from the other two. “‘With joy’ – can [Divine service] be devoid of fear? [Obviously not,] therefore the [other] verse says, ‘with fear.’” This suggests that in fact there is no real contradiction between joy and fear. Of course, there may be a kind of joy that is incompatible with fear (unruly revelry and the like), but essentially the two qualities can co-exist and the service of God should include both.


Joy is an expression of a person’s sense of pervading good. He is happy with life, and he appreciates the privilege of being part of Am Yisrael and a servant of God. His joy testifies to a sense of satisfaction. Hence, his joy is a clear expression of Divine service out of inner wholeness. This in no way negates fear. Both feelings are part of Divine service: joy at being with God, and fear arising from the knowledge that we stand before the King of kings. The two attitudes are complementary rather than contradictory.


  1. Joy and fear in bringing up the Ark of God




A lesson in the proper balance between joy and fear is conveyed in the story of the Ark’s return to Jerusalem in the time of King David (Shmuel II 6) – an account read as the haftara of parashat Shemini. Up until that time, since the destruction of Shilo (Shmuel I 4), the Ark and the Mishkan had been in separate locations. The Mishkan wandered from Nov to Giv’on, while the Ark of God, after being retrieved from the Pelishtim, remained in Kiryat Ye’arim. The Mishkan continued to be a central pilgrimage site, where sacrifices were offered and where the kohanim lived. The Ark, in contrast, was left in its isolation in Kiryat Ye’arim, far from its home. David perceived the problematic nature of this situation, and decided to transfer the Ark to a more central location – Jerusalem:


“And David said to all the congregation of Israel: If it seems good to you, and that it be of the Lord our God, let us send abroad to our brethren everywhere, who are left in all the land of Israel, and with them also to the kohanim and leviim who are in their cities that have pasture lands that they may gather themselves to us, and let us bring back the Ark of our God to us. For we sought not unto it in the days of Shaul.” (Divrei Ha-yamim I 13:2-3)


This event should have been an auspicious and festive occasion, and indeed, we sense the great joy surrounding the Ark and its journey to Jerusalem. However, the celebration ends almost before it begins, in the wake of tragedy:


“And when they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzza put out his hand to hold the Ark, for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord burned against Uzza, and He smote him, because he put his hand to the Ark, and he died there before God. And David was vexed because the Lord had broken out upon Uzza, so that place is called Peretz-Uzza to this day. And David was afraid of God that day, saying, How shall I bring the Ark of God home to me? So David did not bring the Ark to himself to the city of David, but carried it aside into the house of Oved-Edom, the Gittite.” (Divrei Ha-yamim I 13:9-13)


This account raises many questions. Was Uzza’s action indeed so grave that he deserved to die? Why was the process of bringing the Ark to Jerusalem, which seems so positive, halted in the wake of this episode?


Seemingly, the incident involving Uzza was the last straw, the symptom of a far broader phenomenon that has its beginnings earlier in this textual unit. Clearly, the reason for the Ark slipping was the fact that it was laid upon a wagon in the first place. This stands in stark contradiction to an explicit command in the Torah that the holy vessels should not be transported by wagon, but rather should be carried upon human shoulders (see Bamidbar 7:6-9). Hence, the situation was problematic from the outset, and Uzza was simply the unfortunate victim who paid the price.


There was another mistake. The verses do not state who placed the Ark upon the wagon, but it is clear that the wagon-drivers were Uzza and Achyo, sons of Avinadav, residents of Kiryat Ye’arim in Yehuda – and they were not leviim. The problem is spelled out later on, in the second attempt to bring up the Ark, after the episode of Uzza:


“And David called for Tzadok and Evyatar, the kohanim, and for the leviim – for Uriel, Asaya, and Yoel, Shemaya, and Eliel, and Aminadav, and he said to them: You are the chiefs of the fathers’ houses of the leviim; sanctify yourselves, you and your brethren, that you may bring up the Ark of the Lord God of Israel to the place that I have prepared for it. For because you did not do so at first, the Lord our God made a breach upon us, because we did not seek Him according to the prescribed form. So the kohanim and the leviim sanctified themselves to bring up the Ark of the Lord God of Israel.” (Divrei Ha-yamim I 14:11-14)


Indeed, the very next verse sums up the two repairs that they effected:


“And the children of the leviim bore the Ark of God upon their shoulders, the poles being upon them, as Moshe had commanded, according to the word of the Lord.” (v. 15)


Thus, we learn that the entire situation was problematic from the very outset, in that the Ark rode upon a wagon, instead of being carried by leviim. Obviously, this demands some explanation: how is it possible that David made such fundamental errors? What brought about a situation in which there was anything less than full compliance with the commands of the Torah?




The key to understanding the episode is to be found in verse 5:


“And David and all the house of Israel played before God with all their might, and with singing, and with lyres, and with lutes, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets.”


The detailed enumeration of all the musical instruments, along with the image of “playing before God,” creates a sense of great celebration – perhaps too great. Carried away in the overwhelming joy and festivity, some basic boundaries were forgotten or ignored. In an atmosphere like this, it is no wonder that Uzza did not hesitate and instinctively put out his hand to steady the Ark, grasping it directly. It was Uzza who paid the price, but the sin was the function of the general atmosphere, which included a dimension of levity. This is emphasized in the verse describing David’s reaction:


“And David feared the Lord on that day, saying, How shall I bring the Ark of God home to me?” (v. 9)


The fear of God was only “on that day” – implying that prior to this episode the sense of fear of God had been deficient. David acknowledges that the process of bringing up the Ark of God has been faulty, and therefore he halts the process, recognizing that it is not appropriate to continue and bring the Ark to Jerusalem. Clearly, then, David understands that the problem did not lie with Uzza alone. The whole process needs to be rethought and re-planned so as to correct the fault exposed at the initial stage. Thus, the main repair in the second attempt lies not only in the practical measures – the appointment of the leviim to carry the Ark, and having them carry its poles upon their shoulders – but rather, first and foremost, the spiritual repair of creating an atmosphere of fear of God with the proper respect. The second attempt contains no detailed description of musical instruments. It merely states:


“And David and all of the house of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the shofar.” (Shmuel II 6:15)


The second attempt is undertaken with proper seriousness and consciousness of the greatness of the moment: now they are “bringing up the Ark of the Lord,” whereas the first time they had “played before the Lord.” The earlier episode was accompanied with “singing, and with lyres, and with lutes, and with timbrels, and with cymbals, and with trumpets.” A completely different atmosphere prevails the second time, when the Ark is accompanied with “shouting and the sound of the shofar.”


While the first attempt was characterized by joy, the second was enveloped in fear. Once clear boundaries were set, there was room for joy, too, and David indeed expresses most powerfully his sense of love: “And David leapt about before the Lord with all his might” (v. 14). But this joy arose from his recognition of the boundaries, a sense of fear and meticulous attention to the law. For this reason, his joy is appropriate.


The Rambam sums up the episode with the following words:


“The joy that a person experiences in the performance of a mitzva, and in loving God Who commanded them, is a great service… And anyone who diminishes himself and holds his physical self in low esteem in such places, is [in fact] the great and respected man who worships out of love. And thus King David said, ‘I will yet be more lightly esteemed than this, holding myself lowly…’ (Shmuel II 6:22). [Mortal] greatness and glory consist of rejoicing before God, as it is written, ‘And King David was prancing and leaping before the Lord’ (ibid. 6:16).” (Laws of Shofar, Sukka and Lulav 8:15)


  1. Acquiring Torah through joy


Now we can return to joy as an element in acquiring Torah. When a person studies out of joy, he thereby expresses his love for Torah and the satisfaction that he feels when he studies it. When one’s study is accompanied by such feelings, one is prompted to be even more conscientious, even more motivated, and one has an even greater desire to reach even more profound insights. This explains the meaning of the Gemara:


 “This teaches us that the Divine Presence rests [upon one] neither through gloom, nor through sloth, nor through frivolity, nor through levity, nor through talk, nor through idle chatter, but rather through the joy associated with a mitzva, as it is said, ‘But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him…’ (Melakhim II 3:15).

Rabba, commencing [his lesson] before the Sages, used to say something humorous, and the Sages were cheered; after that he sat in awe and began the discourse.” (Shabbat 30b)


The joy of the mitzva, which is not the joy of levity or frivolousness, is the proper means by which to bring the Divine Presence upon oneself. The same applies to Torah study: specifically in the wake of humorous words, which open the heart and bring simple joy, one can arrive at Torah study with the proper fear and seriousness. Joy and fear are two traits that complement one another – in Divine service in general, and in Torah study in particular.


We conclude our discussion with the beautiful words of Rabbi Natan Tzvi Finkel:


“We are accustomed to thinking that fear and joy are two concepts far removed from one another – a thing and its opposite, unable to coexist in the same subject: one who is fearful is not joyous; one who is joyous is not fearful. But if we consider the matter from a Torah perspective, things look different. We find that not only are fear and joy not adversaries; not only does one not cancel out the other, but, on the contrary, they require one another and complete one another. A person cannot acquire fear if, at the same time, he does not also acquire joy, for one cannot exist without the other.” (Sichot HaSabba MiSlabodka, p. 54 ff.)


The Alter of Slabodka brings proof from the ma’aser sheni – whose purpose, as spelled out in the Torah, is to bring a person “to fear the Lord your God all the days” (Devarim 14:22-23). He offers an ironic description:


“Based on our [distorted] concept of ‘fear of heaven,’ what would happen is that the person would come to Jerusalem to learn about fear of God; he would invest great effort with sorrow and anguish, terror and anxiety; his eyes would swim with fear and sadness, and Jerusalem – the city where people come to learn fear of God – would be a city of mourning; thousands of people would cast off from themselves the vanities of the world and of life, going about all day with miserable faces, enveloped in bitter thoughts, and creating a menacing atmosphere and an environment full of sadness and worry, smothering life and the desire for life. How could it be otherwise? After all, this is a place intended for the study of ‘fear’…” (ibid.)


As we know, later on in the parasha, the Torah describes the path for achieving the fear of God:


“You shall bestow that money on all that your heart desires, on oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your soul requires, and you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice – you, and your household….”


The Alter of Slabodka therefore concludes:


“The Torah does not prescribe a narrow and limited life, a life of coarse and cheap desires that flutter and whirl in a man’s heart, placing him in a narrow and constricting cage. A Torah life is illuminated by the light of God; it opens broad vistas before a person, opening his heart and soul with Divine expanses. His eyes will behold all the space of all the worlds, and his thoughts will encompass eternity. The life of Torah is so pure and pleasant that even the slightest unpleasantness – whether spiritual or material – cannot exist within it.”


Indeed, the broad vistas that open up before us when we are joyful may lead to new heights in the service of God and in the study of Torah.



[1] YHE student Staff Sgt. Uriel Peretz Liwerant z”l, an IDF tank commander, fell in the line of duty in 5769 (2009). http://www.urielliwerant.co.il/