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Parshat Ki Tavo: Happiness - The Key to Torah Observance

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Aug 27, 2010

The centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion is the “Tochecha,” the section of verses that describe – in vivid and frightening detail – the curses and punishments that will befall the Jewish people if they do not observe the mitzvos. In the midst of this presentation the Torah pauses, as it were, and makes what appears to be a shocking statement: “Tachas asher lo avadeta es Hashem Elokecha be’simcha u-be’tuv levav me’rov kol,” – because you did not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness out of an abundance of everything” (Devarim 28:47). The implication is that the harsh punishments being described are a result of, in essence, not performing mitzvos with a smile.  

Yet this understanding is difficult to accept for two reasons. First, it doesn’t seem to make any sense. Is it really possible that the Jewish people would be made to suffer such calamities just because they don’t observe the commandments with sufficient joy? And second, this seems to contradict the assertion, made more than once in the Tochecha (including just a few pesukim earlier in v.45), that these curses are the result of the Jewish people’s abandonment of the Torah and non-observance of the mitzvos. So, which one is it – is the punishment because the people didn’t keep the mitzvos at all or because, despite their observance, they didn’t keep them with sufficient joy? 

Rav Chaim of Volozhin suggests that in fact the Torah is not referring to the mood – happy or sad – of a person while he or she performs a particular mitzvah. Rather, he continues, it is describing a person’s general attitude towards mitzvah observance. We are called on to approach mitzvos with a sense of “ashrenu mah tov chelkenu,” with an awareness and appreciation of the priceless opportunity that we have been granted. In contrast, the attitude that the mitzvos are a weighty burden that, nebech, we must carry, is a fundamentally flawed perspective. Such an attitude towards the Torah – even if we carefully observe the mitzvos – constitutes a breach in our relationship with Hashem and, in itself, warrants a severe punishment. 

A second approach is offered by the Alter of Kelm. He suggests that the pasuk is not describing the cause or source of punishment, but rather is referring to a reality, a metzius. He explains that the lack of happiness per se does not merit the extensive suffering described in the parasha; rather the Tochecha is the ultimate result of tepid and indifferent observance.  

A reality of spiritual life is that if mitzvos are performed merely out of habit, let alone with resentment, it is very difficult, nigh impossible, to maintain genuine commitment. Human nature is such that people do not keep up with things that they do not truly enjoy. A person who realizes the many benefits that a life committed to mitzvos provides will naturally be drawn towards ever increasing levels of observance. But if, on the contrary, that appreciation is absent then it is only a matter of time until the actual observance starts to wane. Thus understood, the Torah is not describing two different realities but the casue and effect of a single reality. If a person is lacking the “simcha” and “tuv levav” it’s almost inevitable that, eventually, a reality of “lo shamata be’kol Hashem Elokecha (v. 45) will follow.  

Of course there is no need to choose between these two explanations. Both are profound and resonant. The combined lesson for us is that we must approach mitzvos with genuine appreciation and gratitude not only because that is correct attitude but also because to do otherwise is to run the risk of ultimately abandoning the Torah.  


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