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Parshat Ki Tavo

Our parsha presents us with the curses – if, G-d forbid, we do not listen to the voice of Hashem our G-d, to observe and perform all his commandments and statutes (according to Devarim, xxviii, 15) – alongside several mentions of rejoicing. The opening of the parsha deals with the bringing of the bikurim [first fruits] to Jerusalem, stating: "And you shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem your G-d has given you and your household…"(xxvi, 11). As is well known, the bringing of the bikurim involved a very special and highly emotional ceremony that climaxed with the bringing of the first fruits to the Beit Mikdash. The Rambam (Hilkhot Bikurim, iv, 16) writes: "And at dawn the one in charge says, 'Arise and we will go up to Zion, to the house of Hashem our G-d,' and the ox went before them and its horns were coated with gold and a crown of olives was on its head, to make known that the bikurim come from the seven species, and the flute was played before them until they came close to Jerusalem, and they continued all the way and read, 'I rejoiced when they said to me, let us go to the house of Hashem'…and the flute was played before them until they reached the Temple Mount…and they say, 'praise G-d, praise the Lord in His holiness.'” The Rambam rules (law 13): "Whoever brings bikurim from after the festival of Sukkot until Chanukah, even though he set them aside before the festival, he brings them but does not recite, as it says, 'And you shall rejoice in all the good' – reciting can only be performed at a time of rejoicing, from the festival of Shavuot until after the festival [of Sukkot]." The continuation of the parsha deals with the "confession of tithes" [vidui ma'asrot], in which it states, "I did not eat from it in my mourning" (xxvi, 14) – "from here we learn that it is forbidden to a mourner" (Rashi). "The mourner who is filled with sorrow over the death of his relative, if he is a regular priest he is forbidden to serve or eat holy food, and the same is the case here regarding Ma'aser Sheni [the second tithe] (including the bikurim and the fruit of the fourth year), that they may not be eaten in a state of mourning" (R. Shimshon Hirsch). Later the Torah commands that the people of Israel when they cross the Jordan, "(You) shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster" (xxvii, 2), and concludes with: "And you shall sacrifice peace-offerings and eat there and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d" (7).

 

In the middle of the curses the Torah says, "Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and with gladness of heart, from an abundance of everything" (xxviii, 47). The Rambam learns from this pasuk (Hilkhot Lulav, viii, 15): "The joy that a person rejoices in the performance of a mitzvah and in the love of the G-d who commanded them is a great service, but whoever refrains himself from this rejoicing deserves to be punished as it says, 'Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with joy and with gladness of heart.'"

 

The parsha opens, "And it shall be when you come to the land that Hashem your G-d is giving to you for an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell in it" (xxvi, 1). The Or Chayim explains: "It says, 'And it shall be' – a term signaling rejoicing – to point out that there should be no rejoicing except in the settling of the land, in the same manner as it states, 'then our mouths shall be filled with laughter.'" The words of the Or Chayim are to be understood according to the Midrash Rabbah: "Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachman arrived and said, 'In any place where it says 'And it was [veyehi]' it signals distress; 'And it shall be [vehaya]' [signals] rejoicing.'"

 

It can be suggested that in our parsha, which features the curses that lead to depression and perhaps despair, G-d forbid, the Torah especially emphasizes rejoicing on a number of occasions, to teach us that if we correct our ways we will be able to live in wholeness, G-d willing, and complete joy will rest on our dwellings. A person is obligated to sanctify himself and raise himself to a status of rejoicing in mitzvot as "rejoicing is the feeling of inner perfection of the upright soul as it senses the integrity of its ways and its goodness" (Rav Kook, Olat Ra'ayah I, p. 29). Therefore when a person repents "a powerful rejoicing should clothe the soul of every man for whom the light of repentance lights up his soul. Yet one must make sure that this true rejoicing and the pleasantness of these holy features does not cancel out fear [of Hashem], G-d forbid, but rather the opposite – it should increase the essential force of the soul's watchfulness and zeal" (Letters of the Ra'ayah, section 8).
Unfortunately, there are some who confuse rejoicing, which is spiritual, with pleasure, which is physical. When they are having fun they are sure they are rejoicing, but this is not the case. When the bikurim are brought, "the ox went before them," symbolizing the powerful working tools with which we plough and work the land, "and its horns were coated with gold," teaching us that we do not negate material wealth if it is earned through labor and integrity. Our task, however, does not end there, for "a crown of olives was on its head," the olive oil that signifies the light of Torah and knowledge, like the oil of the Menorah in the Mikdash, implying that the purpose of the ox and gold is wisdom. In this situation all the forces of the world connect to the Divine purpose and as a result "you shall rejoice in all the good."

 

We have learnt that the service of Hashem should be performed with joy and gladness of heart. One would have thought that the practical fulfillment of the mitzvot is the main thing, why must we also rejoice in this service? (it is interesting that the Rambam, the great "rationalist," demands of us that our service of Hashem should be out of rejoicing, a deeply emotional existence). It can be said, however, that Hashem does not want us to serve Him through the subjugation of our powers, but rather the opposite – the mitzvot are a profound expression of our identity and this constitutes true service, for without this aspect all is fake and superficial. The requirement is a double one, including both joy and gladness of heart. As Rav Kook explains ("The Teaching of your Father," i, 5), it is possible to have joy without gladness of heart, which is undesirable, as well as gladness of heart without joy, which is also undesirable. There are many who understood that Hashem must be served in joy and forced themselves to act in joy (similar to the song's famous words, 'we must rejoice') but did not develop this quality gradually in their minds so as to reach the proper state of joy in the service of Hashem. Thus, even though the spirit of joy enters his heart, his heart does not feel good to him, for he does not really desire this joy and he is not comfortable with it but discharges it like an obligation. There is another situation in which his heart really feels good in the service of Hashem, as he recognizes that the Master of all is worthy of being served, but he does not recognize that the service of Hashem involves an encounter with the word of Hashem which is actually above his level and yet Hakadosh Baruch Hu allows him to connect to it, and for this one should rejoice. We learn from this that the Torah demands from us a connection from the inside of our hearts to the Divine greatness, and this truly is our self-perfection.


 
The perfection that brings us true joy results from the unity of all physical and spiritual life-forces in purity, and this perfection can be reached only in Eretz Yisrael, whose unique qualities connect the physical and spiritual, which is why, "there should be no rejoicing except in the settling of the land," as the Or Chayim puts it.

 

In xxviii, 1 the Torah states: "And it shall be, if you shall surely listen to the voice of Hashem your G-d, to observe and perform all the commandments that I am commanding you today…" Earlier (xi, 13) we already found a similar formulation: "And it shall be, if you shall surely listen to My commandments that I am commanding you today, to love Hashem your G-d." Perhaps we can continue the approach of the Or Chayim and say that we must rejoice in the performance of the mitzvot, since "And it shall be" denotes rejoicing.

 

In two places the Torah emphasizes the listening that implies an internalizing, an acceptance into our interior lives (as we have explained on a number of occasions), which leads to an identification of life with mitzvot and makes a person truly joyful.
Moreinu VeRabbenu Rav Zvi Yehudah explains that "And it shall be [vehaya]" implies gladness because "haya" is in the past tense whereas "vehaya" is in the future tense (the grammatical rule of the "reversing vav" [vav hahipuch]). The future is perfect and lofty, whereas the past – the actual realization of affairs – is always inferior and deficient, which is why when a person succeeds in providing the past with the greatness of the future it is a subject of very great rejoicing. This why "And it was [vayehi]" implies distress, as "yehi" is in the future tense and "vayehi" is in the past. When the future appears as the lowly and diminutive past it signals great distress. This tension between the great future and reality is necessary, as Rav Kook says: "A gap must exist between the content of the abstract ideal of the purpose of everything and the part of it that is actualized in reality…were it not for this gradual differentiation the form of all activity would be blurred, reality would lose its character, and statutes and boundaries would not be preserved" (Orot, p. 132).

 

Our task is to connect future ideals to present reality, to the extent that the world is capable of absorbing them. This is achieved through the fulfillment of mitzvot with an inner, perfect connection, through listening to the word of Hashem.


This path cannot be traversed in one go, but rather gradually, bit by bit. This is why Rashi, in his explanation of pasuk 11, states: "'And it shall be if you shall surely listen' – if you listen to the old, you will listen to the new." In other words, out of a connection to what already exists, additional progress towards something new is possible, and if this results from true listening then "the old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified."
 
When we merit a return to Eretz Yisrael we are commanded to continue to raise the Torah through inner service and through joy, and then we will merit, Be'ezrat Hashem, the fulfillment of "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you, and they shall be afraid of you" (xxviii, 10)

 
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