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An Old Ode to Joy

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

There is an interesting subtext to this week's parsha, a concept that links what at first glance seem to be independent and unrelated teachings. The idea is joy.

The last mention of joy in the parsha may be the most instructive. The end of the parsha contains a long rebuke, a section of tochecha that points up the failings of the Jewish People and the punishments associated with those failings. Included in this section is a list of terrible curses that will result from a most surprising "sin":

And all these curses shall come upon you, and shall pursue you and overtake you, until you are destroyed; because you did not hearken to the voice of your God, the Almighty, to keep His commandments and His statutes which He commanded you. [These curses] shall be a sign and for a proof to you and your descendents forever; because you did not serve the Almighty your God with joy and gladness of heart when you enjoyed an abundance of all things. (Devarim 28:45-48)

Lack of joy, not serving God with joy, lies at the very core of all the horrific curses listed in this section.

Earlier in the parsha, joy is addressed in an independent context:

And Moshe and the elders of Israel commanded the people, saying: 'Keep every commandment which I command you today. (Devarim 27:1)

The people would soon cross the Jordan and enter the Land of Israel, and Moshe commands them to build an altar and bring offerings when they cross over into the Promised Land. They are commanded to eat of the offerings, and they are commanded to be happy:

And when you cross the Jordan, set up these stones, which I command you today, on Mount Eval, and plaster them with plaster. There you shall build an altar to the Almighty your God. It shall be an altar of stones, and you shall lift up no iron tool upon them. The altar you build to the Almighty your God shall be made of whole (unhewn) stones, and on this altar you shall sacrifice burnt-offerings to the Almighty your God. You shall sacrifice peace-offerings, and eat there, and rejoice before the Almighty your God. Upon the stones, you shall write all the words of this Torah in a clear way. (Devarim 27:4-8)

The first mention of joy in our parsha is at the outset. The Torah describes the farmer who toils through the long winter. When his arduous work has paid off, he makes his way to Jerusalem bearing the produce with which he has been blessed. The ritual through which he thanks God for the abundance the land has yielded focuses him on remembrance, from the birth of the Jewish People through the enslavement and exodus from Egypt, leading him to this moment in which the promises to our forefathers have come to fruition through his own personal fortune. The individual farmer is encouraged to see his own joy in the context of Jewish history, and to take pleasure in the present; he is instructed - even commanded - to experience joy:

'And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, O God, have given me.' And you shall set it down before the Almighty your God, and bow down before the Almighty your God. And you, and the Levite, and the stranger in your midst, shall rejoice in all the good which the Almighty your God has given to you and to your family. (Devarim 26:10-11)

So much of this seems strange to us: How can the Torah command an emotion? Surely it is difficult to implement such a commandment. And yet, this emotional commandment appears three times in the parsha, and apparently the commandments are geared toward creating joy; when the commandment to rejoice is ignored, terrible things happen.

It may be easier to understand the commandment to rejoice if we understand the nature of commandments in general: if we understand what a mitzvah is, the mitzvah of joy may seem less strange.

The kabbalists understood that the word mitzvah is closely related to the Tetragrammaton, the four-lettered Name of God. They point out that the last two letters of these words are identical, while the first two letters appear unrelated - but only to the untrained eye. A widely-used kabbalistic code, known as atbash,(1) is traditionally applied to problems of this sort. In this formula, the first letter of the alphabet is replaced for the last letter, the second letter with the second-to-last, and so on.(2) The result of using this formula is that the first two letters in the word "mitzvah" mem and tzadi are the equivalent of yud and heh, the first two letters of God's name. Hence, hidden within every mitzvah is an affirmation of the existence of God.(3) Kabbalistic traditions(4) notwithstanding, this is a logical construct: the word mitzvah means commandment. Implicit in the very language is an acknowledgement that there is Superior Being who commands.(5)

There is, however, another tradition regarding the word 'mitzvah' and the concepts this word represents: the word is not a derivative of the root tzav - command, but of the word tzavta, which means 'together.'(6) As a person performs a mitzvah, their thoughts should be focused on two distinct aspects of mitzvah: I behave as I do as an expression of subjugation to the Will of God who commanded that I do so; but also, at the very moment that I perform the mitzvah, I am at one with God, in unison with God. This togetherness transforms the master/slave relationship. This additional meaning of mitzvah gives rise to the realization that the ultimate goal of the commandments is to create a relationship with God that goes beyond mindless, even grudging obedience. Observance of God's commandments without an awareness of this other level of meaning can leave some adherents feeling like slaves, which might lead to feelings of humiliation and depression. Instead, when we perform mitzvot we should feel that God is with us, that we have been given the opportunity to join in a great undertaking, to walk down the path of history in step with our Creator. This understanding must necessarily lead to feelings of elation, gratitude - and joy.(7)

In Parshat Ki Tavo, Moshe prepares to take leave of his nation. He - and they - know that he will perish and be buried on the east side of the Jordan while they continue the journey to the Promised Land without him. Moshe instructs them to keep the commandments; if they do, they will never be alone. God will be with them wherever they go. This realization must bring them all great comfort, great hope - and great joy: the joy of performing a mitzvah, the joy of being together with God.



1. See Tikunei Zohar 131b.

2. See Rav Moshe Cordovera, Pardes Rimonim Sha'ar 30, chapter 5.

3. See Migdal Oz of the Ya'avetz, Beit Midot, Aliyat HaK'tiva, Ohr Hachaim Vayikra 18:4, 19:2, Ben Yohayada Brachot 6a.

4. See Shela Hakodesh, Yoma, Perek Derekh Haim 17, who describes a very saintly kabbalist who attributed his spiritual success to his life-long practice of visualizing the name of God constantly. This image kept him away from sin, and guided him in along a reighteous path in all aspects of his life.

5. The section which immediately precedes the commandment of the first fruits and the joy which should be experienced, is the section describing the battle against Amalek. Significantly, this section describes Amalek's transgression as having caused God's name to be "divided." See Rashi, Shmot 17:16. For more on God's name being encoded or hidden see, see Talmud Bavli Pesachim 50a.

6. See Shla Hakadosh, Yoma, Perek Derekh Haim 16, in the name of the (Tikunei) Zohar.

7. The Arizal, one of the greatest kabbalists who ever lived, claimed that all of his spiritual achievements were the result of performing commandments with joy. See Shela Hakodesh, Yoma, Perek Derekh Haim 20.


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