Ki Tavo 5775 – Because You Were Not Happy?
Parashat Ki Tavo describes at length the consequences that the Israelites are threatened with if they do not follow through on their half of the covenant. In the midst of this description there is a verse that has captured the modern imagination.
Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. (Devarim 28:47-48)
Verse 27, “Because you did not serve out of happiness…” seems to indicate that all of the punishments enumerated in Ki Tavo are enacted solely, or perhaps largely, because the Israelites served God, but were not happy about it. This has given life to mounds of divrei torah and derashot attempting to explain exactly why not being happy is deserving of punishment. But is this really what the verse means? Without yet going into what exactly makes the idea that unhappiness is a reason for punishment so problematic, it’s worth first examining the text to understand why this idea developed and why it is incorrect.
Understanding this Devarim 27:47 means taking a look at it in context of both the pesukim that precedes it and the one that follows it.
מה וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וּרְדָפוּךָ וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ, עַד, הִשָּׁמְדָךְ: כִּי-לֹא שָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ–לִשְׁמֹר מִצְוֹתָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר צִוָּךְ. מו וְהָיוּ בְךָ, לְאוֹת וּלְמוֹפֵת; וּבְזַרְעֲךָ, עַד-עוֹלָם. מז תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל.
45 All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things,
So if you start from verse 45 and read through 47, it does seem like maybe the the verse is saying that a lack of happiness is the reason for the punishments. However, there’s already a reason given in verse 45 for why the kelalot will befall bnei yisrael. Meanwhile, verse 47 does not mention so much as and “and” or “also”. If “happiness” is a reason, it sounds like the reason, which contradicts the reason already given in verse 45.
The real problem arises when you look at the language used in each verse. Verse 47 begins with the word “תחת.” Despite the commonness of this translation, “תחת” doesn’t really mean “because” so much as “in place of.” While this is a viable language for “because”, it’s definitely not the simplest way describe a reason. This is all the more striking since verse 45 gives a reason using the more typical language, “ כִּי,” meaning “because.” So it seems like we should look at verse 45’s statement, “because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you,” as the reason for the punishments rather than verse 47. We can then understand verse 47 in it’s proper context of verse 48, and using the proper translation of it’s beginning.
מז תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל. מח וְעָבַדְתָּ אֶת-אֹיְבֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁלְּחֶנּוּ יְהוָה בָּךְ, בְּרָעָב וּבְצָמָא וּבְעֵירֹם, וּבְחֹסֶר כֹּל; וְנָתַן עֹל בַּרְזֶל, עַל-צַוָּארֶךָ, עַד הִשְׁמִידוֹ, אֹתָךְ.
In place of how did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.
Looking at verse 47 next to the pasuk that follows it, it seems clear that the two verses are a pair. Further, there are strong parallels between the two pesukim, between serving God verses serving “your enemy” and between “an abundance of everything” and “a lack of everything.” The verses are not giving reasons for the punishment but describing two opposing states of existence for the people. The ideal of serving God with plenty, gratitude, and happiness as opposed to serving an enemy in poverty and suffering. Gratitude and happiness are still a part of the discourse, but they are not the reason for the kelalot.
Happiness is hard. It is important, but it is hard. We live in the real world and that means riding the ups and downs of our fortunes. This is affirmed by Devarim 26:11, “You shall rejoice in all that the Lord your God has given you.” Happiness develops based on a complex mix of purpose, meaning, and comfort in life. It would be unfair to say that people must always be happy, and even more so to say that people should be punished for not being happy. Moreover, mitsvot often require self-sacrifice. The Torah asks that of us, and it asks that we make following these mitsvot our way of life, but it does not ask that we hide our eyes from the difficulty often involved. Following the mitsvot is part of a rich way of life, and part of what makes it rich is the dedication and investment involved. Trying to ignore that leads to shallow, self-centered, understandings of the Torah and mitsvot, and ignores the real nature of human beings living in the real world. “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.” (Kohelet 12:13)