Commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the commandment to bring the first fruits to the priests. This ritual includes a verse many will recognize from the Passover seder, recalling that “my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” This is followed by an elaborate staging in order to illustrate the many blessings that will follow one who follows Torah, and the many curses which will come upon the nation if they don’t. The portion concludes with a review of the good things that God has done for Israel since the exodus from Egypt.
“Because you did not serve the Adonai your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity…” (Deuteronomy 28:47).
In the theology of Deuteronomy, blessings of abundance and prosperity follow loyalty to God’s covenant, while curses of the most terrible kind are the consequence of disloyalty. The section of curses in this Torah portion is called tokhekha, or rebuke; it is not a prophecy of what will happen, but a warning of what might happen.
To understand suffering as punishment for sin leads to the idea that undeserved suffering must be because of undisclosed sin–and that can add layers of guilt and shame onto sickness, accidents, or other tragedies. Thus, I’d rather not read this section of curses, the tokhekha, for its theology of punishment. I can, however, read it as a statement of values — by positing dire consequences for certain actions, the Torah is saying: “pay close attention, this is what I want you to take really seriously.”
With that in mind, we can better understand the insight of the Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (Poland, 19th century):
Because you did not serve Adonai your God joyfully . . . “The Torah does not specify the sins for which the Jewish people will be punished. The only one that it mentions specifically is “because you did not serve the LORD your God joyfully.” (Itturei Torah)
How is it that lack of joy is a sin? I don’t think this means that we can never be sad or angry–life has its ups and downs, and that is normal and expected. Rather, I think R. Simcha Bunim is talking about “serving Adonai your God,” that is, making our religious and spiritual disciplines joyful.
There is a line of classical Jewish theology which stresses feeling commanded by God at all times, which is certainly a very serious thing–but R. Simcha Bunim reminds us that we can experience our spiritual practices as a tremendous gift, a daily opportunity to find blessings in the world. As one recent convert to Judaism put it, “I don’t think of it [pick a commandment] as have to, but get to.”
We get to pray moving, ancient words every day, we get to say little blessings of gratitude before eating, we get to study laws for moral refinement, we get to sing and dance and celebrate Shabbat and the holidays, we get to bring holiness into our lives through beautiful rituals . . . . the list goes on. Making religion into a dreary drag is probably the best way possible to drive people away from it.
Maybe that’s why not serving God “joyfully” is such a sin–not only do we fail to lift ourselves out of the burdens of daily life, we might even be convincing others that Judaism is a path of “oy” rather than a path of “joy.”* It’s ironic, then, that in the middle of the most sobering passage in the Torah, we find a strong reminder that Judaism is supposed to be more sweetness than fright.
Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.
Pronounced: ah-doe-NYE, Origin: Hebrew, a name for God.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.