Written in Spanish by Alejandro Alvarado – see Spanish Blogs
Translated and narrated by Peggy Pardo
This parashah Ki Tavo (When you enter) contains the instructions for what the people of Israel should do “when” they enter the Promised Land. The first thing was to set aside the first fruit of the land’s harvest and take it to the Temple; they were to declare that they had been slaves and were now free. Moses speaks about the blessings that they would receive if they fulfilled the Eternal’s Commands or the curses if they disobey.
The children of Israel were ordered to bring in the first fruit of the land once they were established in it; from this we can intuit that before this time, the people didn’t fulfill this command. Only when they were fully established in Israel would they rejoice in their harvest and bring in the first fruits. This is very significant during this month of Elul, which is a time of teshuvah; a time to return to what is essential, to finish what we began in the last year and as we approach Yom Teruah, it’s a new beginning.
The word “simcha” (joy) is one of the fundamental themes of the book of Devarim, Deuteronomy. Joy appears in two contexts in this week’s Parashah. First, it has to do with the offering of the first fruits. Chapter 26:11 says: “and you will rejoice, you and also the Levite and the stranger who is in your midst, for all the good that the LORD your God has given you and your household.”
The other context is quite different because it involves the curses. In chapter 27, we find that the Torah pronounces “curses” for those who do not obey the Commandments of the Eternal. Each curse begins with the word “arur” (“cursed”), the root of which means “to plow” and originally implied binding, restriction, or frustration. It also refers to “binding” someone through the word or hindering their passage through obstacles. The verb “arah” denotes the ”beginning” of the harvest. The verb “to plow” usually appears in juxtaposition with the verb “brachah” (“bless”) as is the case in this week’s parashah. They are all verb roots related to the word “curse”. By this we understand that disobedience and what it entails, leaves the person who commits it bound and hinders their journey set down by the teachings of the Torah. Each curse is also a warning; however, each warning is a door to blessing.
Verse 26 says, “Cursed is he who does not hold fast to the Words of this Torah to carry them out.” Keeping the commandments in our hearts alone is not enough. Good intentions must be accompanied by concrete action. The way to hold firm to the Words of the Torah is to do them.
There are two passages about curses in the Torah. One is in Leviticus 26 and the other is here in Deuteronomy 28. The differences are striking. The curses in Leviticus end on a note of hope while those in Deuteronomy end in despair. Those of Leviticus state that the people walked with God, albeit with hostility and in rebellion. In Deuteronomy, they were caused “because you have not served the LORD your God with gladness and joy of heart, when you had the abundance of all things.”
We know that living without joy is not the best, but does it deserve a curse? What’s wrong with not serving God with joy and gladness of heart? Why such dire consequences?
In Psalm 1 we read: “Ashrei – Blessed or happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, … but his delight is in the Torah of Adonai … he will be like a tree planted by the waters … and whatever he does shall prosper“. He who lives by the Torah leads a serene and blessed life. He bears fruit, he stands firm, and he grows. We might say that happiness is a mental state for each individual but not so with simcha (joy). Simcha is something that is shared, like when we celebrate a wedding, we rejoice, celebrating the moment together. Happiness is an attitude towards life while joy is an experience of the moment, in the present. By not serving God with joy or a joyful heart, the people were showing their selfishness, their self-centeredness. They were only thinking about the benefit that they could get out of their service to God and so they did it with hostility and rebellion. That’s why they complained so much because they could only see an uncertain future. Joy has to do with connecting with other people and with the Creator. Joy is not related to thoughts about the future but to the grateful acceptance and celebration of the present. We are here, we are alive, we live on the good earth that God gave us, celebrating His blessing, eating the fruits of His earth, watered by His rain, ripened under the sun, breathing in the air that He gave us. Joy is the ability to celebrate life itself, to celebrate today without thinking about what might happen tomorrow.
Hence, Moshe’s insistence that the people understand the importance of preserving the ability to rejoice, to celebrate even during a time of darkness, to sing even in “foreign lands”, to gain the strength to resist. We can overcome defeat and failure if we do not lose the ability to rejoice. The Succot party which we will celebrate soon, is an example of this. We leave the comfort of our homes to live in a fragile hut open to the elements, yet we call it Z’man Simchateinu, the Time of Rejoicing.
Recently, we, as a congregation have been experiencing some very difficult moments. These past weeks, we have been “shedding” material things that we as members have shared, resulting a feeling of nostalgia for all that we are leaving behind. But we must not hold on to them…not to material things nor to memories nor to the feelings that this situation produces in us. We must live in the present with joy and serve our Creator with joy in our hearts, knowing that He knows what is best for us. The joy of knowing that the Bore Olam has been with us all this time and that TODAY we have His presence in our lives, should give us the strength to carry on with happy, joyful, and grateful hearts for the beautiful here and now.
Moses concluded by telling the people that only that day, forty years after their birth as a nation, did they reach the point where they had a “heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear.” May our Creator fill our hearts with joy in service to Him and may we live with joy and gratitude for all the abundance that He has provided for us. That’s why we bring Him our first fruits with joy and gratitude.