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Parashat Ki Tavo 5777 — 09/09/2017

Parashat Ki Tavo 5777 — 09/09/2017

Devarim  26:1-29:8

You shall rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem, your Gd, has given you and your household… (26:11)

You will slaughter shelamim-offerings and eat there, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your Gd. (27:7)

Because you did not serve Hashem, your Gd joyfully and with a full heart, from an abundance of everything. (28:47)

It is a great mitzvah always to be happy. (R. Nachman of Breslov)

Our parashah is best known for its section of tochachah (“rebuke” is much too mild a word to describe the litany of horrors, most of which the Jewish people has in fact experienced).  However one theme that runs through it is the theme of simcha, joy.  We are commanded to be joyful when we bring our first-fruit offerings (first quote), when we enter the Land and set up the stones with the Torah written on it in all 70 languages (second quote).  And even in the tochachah, we are told that one of the reasons for our dire circumstances is that we did not serve Gd in joy (third quote)!  Why such an emphasis on being joyful?  Another side of the question might be, why to we have to be told that we must be joyful?!  Doesn’t one naturally want joy in his or her life?  Why does Torah have to command something that we would do anyway?

R. Noah Weinberg, founder of Aish haTorah, identifies 5 levels of pleasure, which I will take here as a proxy for joy.  The lowest level is physical pleasure.  We can certainly understand that there is physical pleasure in eating the meat of the shelamim-offerings or eating our second-tithe foods in Jerusalem.  The sights and sounds of the Temple service also gave physical pleasure.

Next on the hierarchy is love.  The purpose of many of the mitzvot of the Torah is to increase love among people and especially among the Jewish people.  The prohibition of lending on interest and the requirement to give charity and gifts to the poor, all the family- and society-centered mitzvot, all create a sense of love and a family spirit among the whole nation.  The restriction on the time in which a shelamim-offering may be eaten essentially forces the offerer to invite many people to a communal feast, where the physical pleasure of the meal morphs into a loving feeling among the participants.

The middle of the five levels is the desire to do what is good and right, or the pleasure we get when we do what is good and right.  Since the entire Torah is a manual that tells us how to perform right action, action according to the Torah’s instructions is designed to produce this level of pleasure, even in instances where the lower levels of pleasure have to be sacrificed.  For example, to give charity we might have to use funds that we might otherwise have used to take a more luxurious vacation.  The physical pleasure that we give up pales in comparison to the satisfaction we get in giving the charity, just because it’s the right thing to do.

The penultimate pleasure is the power of creativity.  It is the pleasure of having a vision and seeing that vision become a reality.  It is the pleasure of having a thought at the finest level of awareness and projecting it into the field of action.  It is the pleasure of making the abstract into something concrete that can be enjoyed by all.  When we serve Gd by deploying all our creativity to actualize the vision of an ideal society in an ideal world as described by Torah, the pleasure is especially intense.  Perhaps that is why people seem to be “married” to their creations.

The greatest pleasure one can know, however, is connection to Gd.  Gd is infinite, eternal, unchanging.  When we attach ourselves to Gd our spirit expands beyond the narrow confines of our body and its incessant demands for physical pleasure, and even our ego with its incessant demands for power and honor.  When the spirit regains its infinite stature it has transcended the entire field of differences, it is beyond pleasure and pain, gain and loss.  It is established in evenness of life – and this is bliss, the greatest pleasure of all.

Based on this, I think we can understand the requirement to experience joy in a whole new light.  When Moses commands us that we should be joyful during our holiday celebrations, he wasn’t insisting that we really enjoy chowing down on sacrificial meat.  That is only the lowest level of joy.  Nor is he insisting that we use the occasion just to have a family reunion and renew the ties that bind us together.  I think what Moses is telling us is that we have to use all the lower levels of pleasure as steps on a ladder, or as vehicles to transcend those lower levels and to experience directly the infinite bliss that comes from connection with, or absorption in Gd.  And note that this is apparently not simply good advice – it is a mitzvah.  Serving Gd, even at the lower levels of joy, is our technique to raise ourselves to the highest level of service, when the boundary between our individuality and Gd’s universality almost disappears.

Perhaps this is what the tochachah is telling us.  “Because you did not serve Hashem with joy” – you did not rise to a communion with Hashem which is the greatest joy it is possible to experience, a pure joy of being, rather than a joy of having – “from an abundance of everything” – because you got caught up in lower levels of joy, eating and drinking, even loving and didn’t use these joys as vehicles to transcend to the ultimate joy – therefore all these curses come upon you.  And these curses are all limited joys that get turned around – the joy of eating is turned to hunger, the joy of having children is turned to seeing them led away captive, the joy of freedom is turned to slavery.  Why?  Because we are not established in that level of joy that is beyond all duality.  Our joys become fetters to bind us, rather than stages of our liberation.  It is truly frightening!  We had best see to it that we are always focused on the highest joy!


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Ki Tavo

The parshah begins with the requirement of offering the first fruits to Gd and continues with the list of blessings, when we follow Gd’s commandments, and curses when we don’t.

The hopefulness of the parshah that our ancestors and we all future generations will follow Gd’s commandments is contained in Deuteronomy 29: 3.  Here it is with Rashi’s commentary:

3  Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.
Rashi’s Commentary:

ג וְלֹֽא־נָתַן֩ הַ’ לָכֶ֥ם לֵב֙ לָדַ֔עַת וְעֵינַ֥יִם לִרְא֖וֹת וְאָזְנַ֣יִם לִשְׁמֹ֑עַ עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה:
Yet…the Lord did not give you a heart to know:
[I.e.,] to recognize the kind acts of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and [therefore] to cleave to Him.

ולא נתן ה’ לכם לב לדעת: להכיר את חסדי הקב”ה ולידבק בו:
until this day: I heard that on the very day that Moses gave the Torah scroll to the sons of Levi – as the verse says, “And he gave it to the kohanim, the sons of Levi” (Deut. 31:9)-all Israel came before Moses and said to him: “Moses, our Teacher! We also stood at [Mount] Sinai and accepted the Torah, and it was [also] given to us! Why, then, are you giving the members of your tribe control over it, so that some day in the future they may claim, ‘It was not given to you – it was given only to us!’” Moses rejoiced over this matter and it was on account of this, that he said to them, “This day, you have become a people [to the Lord your Gd]” (Deut. 27:9). [This meant:] “It is today that I understand that you cleave to the Omnipresent and desire Him.”

So we can see that when we desire to be included in Torah, the liveliness of Gd, we desire to be restored to our Oneness with the Omnipresent-Omnipotent-Omniscient-OmniLoving-OmniJoyful, then we deserve the blessings and they come to us far beyond any detail of the familiar world, but they come to us as the Wholeness of Life.

Let us keep deserving and asking, cleaving to the One.

Baruch HaShem