<I>Ki Tavo</I>: 'A Great Mitzvah Always to be Joyful'

At the entrance to Israel, we have to be reminded.

Contact Editor
Daniel Pinner,

D. Pinner
D. Pinner
INN: D.P.
"It will be, if you diligently hearken to the voice of HaShem your God, observing to do all His mitzvot... then HaShem your God will place you supreme above all the nations on earth; and all these blessings will come upon you and will overtake you, because you will have listened to the voice of HaShem your God. Blessed will you be in the city, and blessed will you be in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, and the fruit of your land, and the fruit of your animals....
No description of the Holocaust can be more graphic...

"But it will be, if you will not hearken to the voice of HaShem your God... then all these curses will come upon you and will overtake you. Cursed will you be in the city, and cursed will you be in the field. Cursed will be your fruit basket and your kneading bowl.... And all these curses will come upon you, and will pursue you, and will overtake you, until your annihilation, because you did not hearken to the voice of HaShem your God, to keep His mitzvot and His decrees that he commanded you. They will be a sign and wonder in you and your descendants for ever, because you did not serve HaShem your God with joy and with good heart in the abundance of all." (Deuteronomy 28)

This chapter contains the tochacha - the chastisement with which Moshe chastises and promises us the blessings that await us when we obey the Torah, contrasted with the horrific curses that await us if we disobey it. The fifty-five verses of curses remain the most accurate and the starkest depiction of the horrors of exile ever written. No description of the Holocaust can be more graphic and more precise than the Torah's warning in this chapter.

The timing is hardly random. This is the second time that the Torah lays out the blessings and the curses so starkly: the first time is at the end of the Book of Leviticus, in parashat Bechukotai (Leviticus 26:3-45). That first admonition was given towards the end of the first month (Nissan) in the second year after the Exodus (see Numbers 1:1), about two months before Moshe would send out the twelve agents to spy out the Land of Israel. The plan was that the men would spy out the Land for forty days, and we would immediately enter the Land.

It went wrong when the spies delivered their evil report, the nation was demoralized, and the entry into Israel was delayed by almost 39 years; but at the time when this first tochacha was given, no one could have known that they were not poised at the threshold of redemption. And it was precisely then that the nation needed these instructions for living in Eretz Yisrael. It was just before entering the Land and taking possession of it that we had to be given this clear warning: the Land is not given unconditionally, and just as God gave it to us, He can equally take it away from us if our actions thus merit. And this is the reason that Moshe repeats this tochacha now, 39 years later, as we stand on the east bank of the River Jordan, overlooking the Land, in the last few weeks before entering the Land: it is precisely at the entrance to Israel that we have to be reminded and warned of what awaits us, both when we do good and if we do wrong.

Neither is it coincidence that in the yearly Torah-reading cycle instituted by chazal around 2,000 years ago, we always read this tochacha a couple of weeks before Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur - in the period when repentance reaches its peak. It is at this time of year that we must be reminded yet again that none of the disasters that have
It is at this time of year that we must be reminded yet again.
befallen us throughout our history are happenstance, and that it is in our power, and ours alone, to avert future calamity.

In a way, this tochacha summarises the Jewish attitude to history. Neither the good nor the bad depend on "fortune," on "luck," or on coincidence: "There is no luck for Israel." (Shabbat 156a, Nedarim 32a, et al) Rather, all that happens, both the good and the bad, is from God; and since God is infinitely just, both the good and the bad are direct results of our actions. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (commentary on verses 3 and 4) notes the sequence of "blessed will you be in the city, and blessed will you be in the field." The usual way of the world is that if the field is blessed, if there is abundant produce, then the entire economy thrives and the city thereby becomes blessed. But for Israel, it is reversed and the blessing of the field depends on the city: as a result of city life, the family and society as a whole, following the Torah's morality, justice and brotherly love, God showers His blessings on the field.

Amidst all the terrifying curses listed, the Torah specifies the reason for them: "They will be a sign and wonder in you and your descendants forever, because you did not serve HaShem your God with joy and with good heart." (verse 47) One understanding of this is that God punishes us if we keep the mitzvot without the proper joy. You may indeed have prayed regularly, but you saw this as an unpleasant chore, rather than praying with joy. Though you kept Shabbat, you did so grudgingly, watching the clock in the late afternoon and longing for the moment that Shabbat would at last finish, instead of experiencing the bliss of Shabbat. Such an attitude brings Divine punishment.

Rabbeinu Bechayeh expresses this very powerfully: "The Torah condemns one who serves God if his service was not done in joy, as one is obligated to rejoice over performing the mitzvot. The joy of performing a mitzvah is a mitzvah in and of itself. In addition to being rewarded for the mitzvah, one is also rewarded for the joy, which is why He punishes one who carries out the mitzvot but does not do them joyfully; therefore, a person must carry out the mitzvot in joy and with complete devotion."

But there is also another, deeper, way of understanding this reason: "You did not serve HaShem your God with joy and with good heart" - when you did not serve HaShem your God, you did so with joy and with good heart. "There is no man in the world who is a perfect tzaddik, doing only good and never sinning" (Ecclesiastes 7:20), and it is human nature to err and to sin occasionally. But when a Jew sins, and he rejoices that he sins, that is what brings these horrendous punishments.

The holy Seer of Lublin, Rebbe Ya'akov Yitzchak (1745-1815), used to say that the sinner who knows he is a sinner is better than the tzaddik who knows he is a tzaddik. And a
The sinner who knows he is a sinner is better than the tzaddik who knows he is a tzaddik.
generation later, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, took this idea further. There are two books, he taught: one with the names of those who, when they sinned, sighed with sadness because they sinned; and the other book with the names of those who, when they sinned, did so with joy. And greater is the difference between them, taught Rabbi Yisrael, than the difference between heaven and earth.

We are rapidly approaching Rosh HaShanah - not just any Rosh HaShanah, but the Rosh HaShanah of a particularly critical juncture of our national history. The nation and the Land are poised at the brink of tremendous cataclysms. These can be for the bad or for the good. The infinite God Who created us, created us with our limitations and with our yetzer hara (evil inclination). It is human to sin; it is Divine to forgive. Even if a Jew does sin, let his tears of sorrow at not being strong enough to overcome sin be genuine enough to cleanse him. And may every Jew perform the mitzvot with such great joy, the joy of being Jewish, the joy of having the awesome merit of serving the King of the Universe, the joy of having the immediate connection with the infinite holiness of the Torah, that his joy may elevate him, and all Israel, to hasten Mashiach and the final Redemption.





top