Ki Tavo 5775 – Because You Were Not Happy?

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)

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Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

Shoftim 5775 – Two Symbolic Interpretations of a Mitsvah.

“Do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.” ~Devarim 16:22

The prohibition of creating a monument stone, a “matsevah“, is side-by-side with a discussion of the altar, “mizbeah“, that the Israelites are allowed to create (16:21).

Contrasting the two structures enables a few suggestions as to why one might be encouraged and the other forbidden.

  1. A matsevah is a single stone while the mizbeah is built of many stones. Unity is less about being contiguous, about being of a single cloth, then about the unity of disparate elements towards a single purpose, the service of God and the fulfillment of God’s Law.
  1. Being a single stone, the matsevah is essentially a natural object, produced by God. The mizbeah is artificial, coming about only through the strength of human hands (Devarim 8:17-18). Holiness and the service of God have less to do with the innate nature of things and more to do with the importance of human action. God has given us a world and asked us, through his law, to sanctify and to distinguish, to elevate it and make it holy (Vayikra 10:10).

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

Pesah 5775 – The Narrative of Narratives

The Mishnah (Pesahim 116a) states that the discussion of the Exodus from Egypt at the seder must “begin with disgrace(גנות) and end with glory(שבח).” The exact understanding of this “disgrace” is the subject of a debate between Rav and Shmuel, with Rav saying that the requirement to start with disgrace is fulfilled by reciting a verses from Sefer Yehoshua (24:2-4) detailing how Bnei Yisrael are descended from idolaters like Terah before they ever went down to Egypt, and Shmuel saying that it is fulfilled by reciting a verse from Sefer Devarim (6:21, 5:15) discussing how Bnei Yisrael were slaves to Paroah in Egypt before ‘א redeemed them.

In the liturgy of our Haggadah we include both passages, making sure we have all of the disgrace covered[1]. This “disgrace to glory” structure dictates the nature of the story of the Exodus from Egypt that is discussed at the seder, ensuring that we cover the full story of ‘א rescuing Bnei Yisrael. This narrative makes it clear just what depths he pulled them out of, whether the spiritual depths of the post-Bavel depths of Bereishit 11 or the physical degradation of the slavery in Egypt. Against the background of this “disgrace” it becomes clear just how great the redemption from Egypt was.

However, the “disgrace to glory(שבח)” structure does more than just give the necessary limits of the recounting of the Exodus. Thanks to the multiplicity of meanings of the word “שבח,” it also creates the basic structure of Magid, the “retelling” portion of the seder. Maggie starts with calls for anyone who even now is in a state of “disgrace” to come and join our table. Then through the retelling of the redemption we pass through the glory of ‘א’s deeds to the point where we burst forth with joyous praise(שבח) of  ‘א with the beginning of Hallel (which we return to after the meal). Thus the experience of fulfilling the seder takes a person from one end to the other of the mishnaic dictum to “begin with disgrace and end with praise(שבח).”

The continuation of the Mishna tells us that out to expound upon the verse, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5), and in fact a large portion of Magid is dedicated to midrashic exegeses of that whole passage from Devarim (26:5-11). What makes this passage an interesting choice is that it is not itself a passage from the Exodus story. If the goal of the seder, and Magid in particular, is to recount the story of the Exodus, the it would seem more logical to choose a passage from the first half of Sefer Shemot where the Exodus is actually narrated by the Torah. Certainly there is no lack of passages from the Exodus that simply cry out for exposition. Instead, the Mishna says we just delve into the passage recited by a farmer upon bringing the Bikkurim, the first fruits, to the temple. Upon bringing the fruits, the farmer recites a length retelling of the history of Bnei Yisrael from Avraham through the Exodus to their arrival from Egypt into the fruitful land of Canaan. By picking this passage the Haggadah directs our attention not to the Exodus but to the recounting of it.

While this at first glance seems strange, it finds a strong resonance within the other passages of Magid. The passages that Rav and Shmuel each chose are not from Bereishit 11 or from the slavery of Sefer Shemot, but from Yeshoshua’s discussion of Terah and Sefer Devarim’s  to tell your son that we were slaves to Paroah. Thus Rav and Shmuel are also focusing not on retelling the Exodus but on retelling the Retelling of the Exodus. Many of the other passages of Magid are even more explicit in this focus on “retelling the retelling.” In Magid we recount the story of the sages who stayed up all night talking about the Exodus, we discuss the debate between R’ Zoma and the Sages about when you have an obligation to talk about the Exodus, and we talk about the exegesis of the sages regarding how the plagues add up. The passages in which we retell the retelling of the Exodus story are a huge portion of the liturgy of Magid, almost outweighing the passages where we simply retell the story of the Exodus. In speaking these passages we affirm our place in a chain of speakers, in the line of “retellers” going all the way back to first generation out of Egypt.

This chain of speakers itself participates in the narrative of Yetsiat Metsrayim, in the journey from disgrace to glory and praise. In speaking the words of the seder we place ourselves in a chain that stretches back to the Exodus itself, a line of people who have experienced and told of ‘א glorious redemption, from generation to generation, heading to a time when the whole world will sing out in praise of ‘א.

[1] It is possible that the halakhah was decided like Rav and we just have both passages anyway. For more on that, see here.