Frederick L. Klein

Ki Tavo: The Spiritual Lesson of Joy

Many have watched the monumental series Breaking Bad.  The series follows the precipitous moral decline of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.  White is a brilliant chemist and PhD, but has ended up as a high school teacher, while his former research partner has created a multi-million-dollar company with some of his own ideas.  Despite his supportive family and decent life, he nonetheless feels cheated and unhappy, unrecognized by others.  To make some extra income to ensure his family’s financial security after learning he has cancer, he begins to manufacture methamphetamine.  In time, as the money comes in and he makes more money, he becomes a major player in the drug cartel.  Over a few years, as he becomes more deeply embedded, he commits heinous acts which only years earlier he would never have imagined. What is brilliant about this show is how a simple character flaw can lead a mild man over time to become a monster.  By the end of the series, White has become corrupt and evil.  He truly is not the same man, totally unredeemable.

We all know the phrase, “beat one into submission,” but what about “beat one into happiness.”  Yet, strangely, our parashah seems to state just that.  The Torah tells us that if the people do not live in accordance with the commands of God and create a Godly society, the land will not yield produce, they will become penniless, they will be enslaved by foreign nations, they will be plagued with illness, and they will be cursed by societal violence.  Ultimately, they will be shipped back to Egypt.  Incredibly, the Torah graphically describes a situation in which a parent during the desperation of a siege will feed on the flesh of her own offspring and not share with the rest of her family.  Whether this is literal or a metaphor for complete economic, moral, and social dissolution, the gruesome and graphic image is deliberate and is meant to disabuse us of any illusion that things could not become so dire.  However, even more shocking is the reason the Torah provides for these catastrophes, “Because you didn’t serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and with gladness of heart, due to the abundance of all things” (Deut. 28:47). 

What are we to make of this enigmatic statement?  Is the Torah telling us that because we failed to do the commandments with joy, these calamities are to occur? The destruction of ancient Israel was because people were not sufficiently happy?  Because of a small character flaw, God will execute such terrifying punishments?

When we speak about happiness, we tend to think of this as an emotion.  However, joy in the Torah is decidedly not about ‘having a good time.’[1]  Rather, the Torah is not speaking simply about a personal disposition, but a moral approach to life.  There are those who are blessed, have ‘an abundance of all things,’ but are deeply dissatisfied.  They may even be following the laws of the Torah, but somehow those actions are flawed, emptied of all meaning because they are not done with joy.

In the book of Deuteronomy, joy has a decidedly moral valence.  On multiple times during the year, one is called to come before God in the Temple and to rejoice ‘for everything that is given to him’ (See e.g., Deut. 12:7, 12, 18, 14:26, 16:11).  When one rejoices, one partakes of one’s blessings, recognizing their source.  Thus, rejoicing is not about ‘having a good time,’ but rather recognizing that one is blessed.  When one truly takes stock of life, they realize they have much.  They realize the source of their abundance. “Who is the person who is rich, the one who is happy with their lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).   In other words, true joy is the external expression of an internal disposition- gratitude.

However, this realization goes much deeper in the book of Deuteronomy, which offers a model of true interconnected community grounded in social concern for the other. Just as I am a child of God, all those around me are also children of God. If they are God’s children as well, then they also are my brothers.  Wealth is shared among family members, and God has given me blessings and deputized me to distribute those blessings to God’s other children- my brothers and sisters!  People who feel blessed, also feel wealthy, and therefore more readily relinquish what they have to others, especially their family members.  They realize that they do not own their wealth, but are the stewards of God’s blessings.  The rejoicing in the book of Deuteronomy therefore includes the landless Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow as well as the slave and the maidservants.  All are children of God.  Each one of them.  They all need to feel blessed.

A good example of this phenomenon is the opening verses of our parashah, discussing our obligations to bring the first fruits to the Temple on Shavuot.  In bringing them to the Temple, the person must relate the history of the Jewish people.  They were slaves in Egypt, and God took them out with miracles and wonders, bringing them to this blessed land, ‘flowing with milk and honey.’[2]  Having realized a time when they had nothing and their labor was not their own, they realize now what they have.  In gratitude they bring a symbolic gift to God, the first fruits.  They rejoice in what they have been given in this wondrous land. However, it does not end there, as they are then commanded to rejoice with the landless Levites and strangers.  The Levites and stranger also need to rejoice.

Conversely, failure to share is a perversion of ritual itself. Maimonides writes:

… a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not indulging in rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut. And regarding such a person [the verse, Hoshea 9:4] is applied: “Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners, all that partake thereof shall become impure, for they kept their bread for themselves alone.” This happiness is a disgrace for them, as [implied by Malachi 2:3]: “I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festival celebrations.”

In essence, the lack of sharing one’s bounty with others is reflective of a person who does not really understand from where their blessings come.  Their very lack of joy and gratitude reveals that their very worship of God is a total sham.  Just like a mourner’s bread is impure, as the mourner has come into contact with a dead body, so too are their sacrifices.  They are unholy and impure.    The people only think they are doing ‘religious things,’ but the very fact they do not understand the religious meaning of joy by not opening their wealth to others means they are hypocrites.  They think they are bringing holy things, but what God sees is not the animals, but a load of dung.

If one does not worship God out of a sense of indebtedness and gratefulness, then why do they worship at all?  They worship because they erroneously believe that by doing certain rituals, they can force God to provide what they need.  This is the essence of idolatrous worship.  As long as they keep sacrificing, God will keep on giving, regardless of how they treat others.  In truth, they do not want to feel indebted, but want to control the world around them for themselves.   The Torah is telling us that by failing to worship God with one’s abundance with joy, they fail to recognize the very point of ritual itself, which is an act of gratitude towards God.

Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Egypt becomes a foil for the land of Israel.  Egypt is a culture consumed with political and economic power, and even Pharaoh himself is seen as a God.  The sun rises and falls because of the Pharaoh.  In an insatiable quest for power, the king further enslaves and disenfranchises everyone else.  He does this in order to control fate itself. He wants to be indebted to no one.  Yet, the story of the Exodus is a story in which God is the God of slaves, the oppressed.  The battle with Pharaoh is specifically to bring him low.  The ten plagues are meant to demonstrate to the entire world that in fact Pharaoh is a man, and controls absolutely nothing.  He fails to recognize that he does not determine blessing, but God does.

The noted Israeli intellectual Micah Goodman has noted that the book of Exodus is a story of extracting the Jewish people from Egypt.  The book of Deuteronomy is about extracting the ethos and temptations of Egypt from the hearts of the people, and to make sure Israel does not become Egypt itself.  Israelite culture and practice were to be in opposition to everything Egypt represented.  In truth, Goodman notes, this project was a failure, and the vision of the book was never realized.

With this in mind, it is instructive to examine some of the striking details of the curses that will befall Israel if they fail to internalize the moral value of the ‘joy found in your abundant blessings.’   First, they are complete reversals of all the blessings of abundance promised in the land of Israel.  But there is something else. Among the curses, God will bring you dever/ pestilence (v. 21) and all forms of plagues (v 25).  The heavens will rain down dust, and your bodies will have boils (v. 27) You will be like a blind person, confused and groping in the dark (v. 28-29).   The locust (v. 22) will eat the produce of your trees. Your children will be enslaved (v. 48).  You will be sent to a foreign country where you are despised.  Far from becoming numerous, you will become few in this oppressed land (v. 62).  If the connection is not already clear, God will bring you into Egypt again with ships, by the way of which I said to you, “You shall see it no more again”, and there you shall sell yourselves to your enemies for bondservants and for bondmaids, and no man shall buy you. (v.68). Many of the curses are a reversal of the Exodus.  As Israel became more like Egypt in their own land, lusting for more power and control, forgetting the values of gratitude and beneficence, God will send plagues upon them just like Pharaoh, and they will be reduced until they are sent back on ships to Egypt.

It is not merely that God punishes Israel.  Rather, just like Egypt collapses because of its injustice and corruption, if Israel perpetuates that same culture, they will suffer a common fate.  If they do not rejoice in their blessings and share with others, they will be led to try and control everything around them, amassing power to themselves and oppressing others in the process.  They will try to assuage God, but not truly worship God, because ultimately, they want the control that God has.  In other words, Israel too can have its Breaking Bad moment with devastating consequences.  It begins with what seems to be a minor character flaw failing to worship God in joy, recognizing one’s many blessings.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Quoting our verse, Maimonides writes, “When a person eats, drinks, and celebrates on a festival, he should not let himself become overly drawn to drinking wine, mirth, and levity, saying, “whoever indulges in these activities more is increasing [his observance of] the mitzvah of rejoicing.” For drunkenness, profuse mirth, and levity are not rejoicing; they are frivolity and foolishness. And we were not commanded to indulge in frivolity or foolishness, but in rejoicing that involves the service of the Creator of all existence. Thus, [Deuteronomy 28:47] states, “Because you did not serve God, Your Lord, with happiness and a glad heart with an abundance of prosperity.” This teaches us that service [of God] involves joy. And it is impossible to serve God while amid levity, frivolity, or drunkenness” (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:20)

[2] These are the verses which quoted for the extended midrash in the Passover Haggadah.

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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