Happiness Is An Obligation
Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )
This parashah opens with the mitzvah of bikkurim, which requires that we bring the first fruits of our field to the Temple as an expression of gratitude to God. The Torah states that when we present those first fruits, we make the following declaration: "V'atah hinei heiveisi... - And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the ground...."
The Midrash tells us that three words in this passage teach us the proper manner in which to give, for just as the nation is responsible to provide for the Kohanim, so too are we responsible for the needy.
1. "V'atah - And now," implies immediacy - alacrity. Tzedakah must be given with dispatch, for any delay might prolong the distress of the needy. Moreover, by giving immediately, without procrastination, we demonstrate our sensitivity to the pain of the recipient, and that, in and of itself, is therapeutic. The knowledge that someone truly cares and understands the urgency of their predicament lifts the spirits of those in need and gives them hope.
2. "Hinei - Behold." The word connotes joy, happiness. It is essential that when we give, we do so with a full heart, a smile, and a kindly word. By giving in such a manner, we shield the indigent from embarrassment and enable him to keep his dignity. Begging is a mortifying experience, and donors must exert every effort to protect the poor from humiliation.
3. "Heiveisi - I have brought." This word connotes that that which we give to the poor is not really our gift, but rather, a gift that we bring entrusted to us by God so that we might share it with others. But, if that be the case, what are we giving? If we give with a full heart, with those aforementioned qualities - identification with the plight of the indigent and a kindly spirit - then it is accounted to us that we gave, for that is truly the only thing that we can give. The money is not ours. These are important laws to bear in mind regarding tzedukah. Once we absorb them, our entire manner of giving will be different. It will leave us spiritually elevated rather than with the feeling of self-aggrandizement which, unfortunately, very often characterize the donor.
HAPPINESS - A COMMAND, NOT AN OPTION
"And you shall rejoice with all the goodness that Hashem, your God, has given you and your household...."
We may have difficulty with this passage. This commandment pertains to those who had toiled over their crops and gathered their harvest. Surely, in the wake of such an accomplishment, they would not have to be told to be happy. They had every reason to rejoice and be satisfied. But herein we discover the perverseness of human nature, which never allows a man to be content with what he has. Even though he succeeds, he remains restless; he desires more, and then some more again. And worse, he measures his harvest, his attainments, against those of his neighbors, and if they should have more, his jealousy consumes him and his joy is marred. It is this jealousy that robs a person of his peace of mind, his happiness and contentment, and generates bitterness, greed, and hatred.
GRATITUDE: A PILLAR OF JUDAISM
To overcome these negative feelings, the Torah commands us to appreciate that whatever we have has been given to us by God. He knows what we require for our well-being, and we must condition ourselves to believe that, if He did not give it to us, then obviously, we can do without it. So, instead of bemoaning that which we do not have, let us rejoice in that which we do have. If we absorb this basic principle, if we bear in mind that it is God Who is in charge, that it is He Who provides us with all our needs, then we will be blessed with simchas hachaim, deep-seated joy in life. We will find fulfillment in our own lot, for we will realize that we do not need more. This spirit of simchas hachaim is the ticket to peace of mind, but if we lose sight of it, we underwrite our own undoing. This concept of simchas hachaim is at the root of hakaras hatov, the gratitude that is one of the basic pillars of the principles of our faith. Feelings of hakaras hatov are so crucial to the proper service of God that, toward the end of the parashah, we are told that our exile would come about because we did not serve God with joy and goodness of heart.
JEALOUSY LEADS TO HATRED
But, one might protest, does this not conflict with the dictum that our Temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam - baseless hatred - between Jew and Jew? Upon closer scrutiny, we will realize that there is no dichotomy between these two teachings, for as was explained, when one is not happy, when one is not content, at the root of his feelings is "I need more!" And such feelings easily lead to resentment and jealousy, culminating in hatred.
Those who indulge their covetous eyes will never be satisfied, and the consequences of their discontent will be their undoing. There will always be someone who is richer, whose house is bigger, who is smarter or prettier, etc., so the Torah commands us to work on ourselves and find happiness, contentment in all the good that God has bestowed upon us. In our competitive society, it is easy to fall into the trap of covetousness, to focus on what we do not have rather than on what we do have.
Let us count the many blessings that God has granted us and find our happiness in them. Let's start with a simple exercise: Upon opening our eyes every morning, let's not say, "Modeh Ani," simply by rote, but let us declare those words with a sincere grateful heart, "I thank You for returning my soul." If we learn to commence our days with a genuine expression of gratitude, then, hopefully, those feelings will accompany us throughout the day, spill over into all our activities, and make us realize that we should not take any of the simple gifts of life for granted, for those gifts are not so simple after all. Alas, most of us appreciate God's blessings only after we lose them; only then do we realize how fortunate we once were. How sad!
1. Deuteronomy 26:10.
2. Ibid. 26:11.
3. See ibid. 28:47.