As the Jewish People stand on the east bank of the Jordan River after forty years of wandering the Sinai Desert, a few short metres from their homeland, Moshe reads them the riot act. The Admonition (Tochecha) contains a litany of evils that would, Heaven Forbid, befall the Jewish People should they disregard G-d and His Torah. The Admonition begins with a stern warning [Devarim 28:15]: “And it will be, if you do not obey G-d to observe to fulfill all His commandments and statutes which I am commanding you this day, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you.” The Admonition is graphic and gruesome and, sadly, we have seen it come to fruition all too many times over the years. One verse in the Admonition caught my attention this year [Devarim 28:47]: “[All these curses will befall you] because you did not serve G–d, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.” It sounds like a sort of quid pro quo: You were not happy when you should have been happy so now I’m going to make you extremely sad. It is like the parent warning his whining child, “Now I’m going to give you something to cry about!” Truth be told, it doesn’t seem fair. Does there exist anywhere in the Torah a positive commandment that we must always be happy? Yes, the Torah commands us in numerous locations that we must rejoice specifically “on our festivals” but what about the rest of the year? As long as we keep the commandments, whether we are jubilant or despondent should not be a factor.
Or maybe it should be. The beginning of the Portion of Ki Tavo introduces us to the commandment of the first fruits (bikkurim). Each year, we must take our bikkurim to Jerusalem, where they are given to a priest (kohen). The bikkurim are given with great fanfare. The Mishna in Tractate Bikkurim [3:1] teaches that as people from the towns and farms made their journey to Jerusalem carrying the bikkurim, delegations of elders from the cities on the way would come out to greet them with singing and dancing and food fit for a king. After handing over the bikkurim to the kohen, several verses [Devarim 26:5-10], called the “Reading of the First Fruits (Mikra Bikkurim)”, are recited. Mikra Bikkurim tells the story of how our forefathers were exiled and subjugated in Egypt, how we were freed from bondage “with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders” and how G-d brought us into the Land of Israel, which explains why I have this basket of fruit in my hands. The bikkurim are laid on the altar, the fruit-owner bows and then makes his way back home. Before the bikkurim ceremony is over, the Torah tells us one last thing [Devarim 26:1]: “Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that G-d has granted you and your household: you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” What is this “good” that we are meant to rejoice with? At the simplest level, the Torah is referring to the bikkurim that we have just brought and the crops that they came from. According to this interpretation, the Torah is not mandating rejoicement, rather, it is describing the joy that has just been expressed by the bikkurim ceremony, as if to say “This is how you shall rejoice with all the good…”
I would like to propose another way of understanding the commandment to rejoice. Before the bikkurim-bringer hands over the bikkurim to the kohen, he tells him [Devarim 26:3] “I declare this day to G-d that I have come to the land which G-d swore to our forefathers to give us”. Rashi comments that the bikkurim-bringer makes this statement in order to show “that you are not ungrateful”. The Maharal, writing in the Gur Aryeh, explains that Rashi is explaining why the bikkurim-bringer needs to announce to the kohen that he has come to the land. Of course you’ve come to the land – we’re standing together at the Temple (Beit HaMikdash) in Jerusalem, aren’t we?! This, explains the Maharal, is precisely the point. The mere fact that this person is standing as a free person living in the Land of Israel and not as a slave living in Egypt is sufficient reason to give thanks. Not acknowledging this is simply being ungrateful. This is “all the good” that the bikkurim-bringer acknowledges. Not only did he merit living in a sovereign Land of Israel, but he was also lucky enough to own property.
A lack of happiness and gratefulness can be tragic. A year after the Egyptian exodus, Moshe sends spies to the Land of Israel to scout out the land in preparation for its capture. The scouts return with an evil report, asserting that the land is inhabited by unconquerable giants. The people are inconsolable [Bemidbar 14:1]: “The people cried on that night”. The Talmud in Tractate Ta’anit [29a] describes G-d’s response to their tears: “You wept in vain; I will establish it for you as a time of weeping for all generations”. According to the Talmud, that night was the night of the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av), a night on which, one day in the future, two Batei Hamikdash would be destroyed. We cry today because we should not have cried then. Identifying the Land of Israel as a curse and not a blessing was a critical error. In the words of the Midrash Tanchuma [Metzora], a person who shows mercy to the cruel will one day show cruelty to the merciful. The inability to distinguish between mercy and cruelty, between blessing and curse, or between good and bad will inevitably lead to tragedy.
Rabbi Meir Soloveichik recently published one of the most magnificent articles I have read in a very long time. Called “Not Everything is Tisha B’Av”, it appeared in the September 2023 edition of Commentary Magazine. Three days before Tisha b’Av, the Israeli Knesset passed a law restricting the power of the Supreme Court from ruling based on the “Reasonableness Clause”. The Times of Israel responded with this headline: “Judicial overhaul opponents see parallel to Tisha B’Av, saddest day in Hebrew year”. Some Israelis on the political left, people who would not ordinarily fast on Tisha b’Av, took upon themselves to fast this year as an act of mourning over what the Knesset had wrought. Rabbi Soloveichik makes a critical point: “One cannot compare the tragedies of the Jewish past to a democratic vote by the Israeli Knesset, however mistaken one might believe that vote to be. To make this comparison is to recommit the sin of the spies and their audience among the Hebrews, and to repeat the error of our ancestors in the desert millennia ago… One can react only with horror to the statement by a Jew that a vote by the Knesset is more worthy of mourning than the deaths of Jews throughout history.” Israel today is a country in turmoil, a country deeply divided, and yet, it is our own independent country, a country that slightly more than a century ago was an unimaginable miracle. Rabbi Soloveichik writes, “The Temple is not yet rebuilt, and hatred of the Jews still festers, but a rebuilt, united Jerusalem stands under Jewish sovereignty. If those who suffered in the events marked on the Ninth of Av would have been shown images of our own age – a united Jerusalem featuring a Jewish government, a Judean desert in bloom, and Jewish homes rebuilt throughout the Holy Land – they would have rejoiced at this vindication of Jewish yearnings. And if they would have been told that during all this, the parliament of the Jewish state would then vote to limit the ability of a Supreme Court to pronounce administrative decisions as ‘unreasonable,’ their awe would not be diminished by an iota, no matter the flaws or virtues of this vote.”
Let’s return to bikkurim. Notice who the Torah commands to be happy: “You, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you”. The Levite was supported by the state – he had no land of his own. The stranger was not even Jewish. And yet, these people were commanded to bring their first fruits to Jerusalem along with everyone else and to acknowledge before G-d that Jewish sovereignty in the State of Israel is something to rejoice over. If the Levite and the stranger, with their tenuous connection to the land, must be happy so, then, must we. After two thousand years of exile, the State of Israel has risen from the ashes. While today we are experiencing an unprecedented crisis of existential proportions, today is, all the same, a time to give thanks.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5783
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yehuda ben Tzivia, Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, and Rina bat Hassida.
 See Devarim [16:14] “You shall rejoice in your Festival”.
 Bikkurim is given only of the first fruits of the Seven Species.
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.
 Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known by his acronym “Maharal”, lived in Prague in the 16th century.
 Rabbi Soloveichik lives in New York City. He is the great-nephew of Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik.