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The Parsha Experiment - Nitzavim: How To Make Sense Of The Terrible Curses II
This video is Part 2 in a series that began in Parshat Ki Tavo. If you haven’t seen Part 1, I’d suggest checking it out first. But let’s do a quick review:
In our parsha, when Moses gives his final speech to persuade the people to keep to God’s path, He says: רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, - See that I have placed before you life and good, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע - and death and evil. That language, we said, led us straight to to the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And that’s not the only thing that pointed us to Genesis: Here in Devarim, we see the words “tov” and “kol” with bikkurim - where we are told to rejoice in all of the good that God has given us. And in Moshe’s explanation for why Israel might deserve the curses: inasmuch as they were not happy in their serving God, in the good of their hearts, out of their great abundance.
Those words too point us straight to the Creation story, where we saw references to “tov,” vayar ki tov, and to “kol,” God giving humanity access to everything, to all of the trees of the garden.
Our trail of clues may have led us to Genesis, but why? How does the beginning of the Torah help us understand the terrible difficulties we have here at the end? How can we possibly understand the sadistic curses in Ki Tavo and the horrific description of the parents who will eat their own children and won’t share the leftovers?
I want to suggest that the key is in understanding why humanity ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. That sin had devastating consequences. We asked last time: How could they possibly have been tempted to eat from the tree in the first place? Achol tochel mikol eitz hagan. They were given every tree in the garden, to enjoy. They had everything!
Well, not everything, says the clever inner voice that we all sometimes hear. Technically...There is that one tree...I’m not saying it’s a big deal, I’m just pointing out that, strictly speaking, it’s not everything. That voice isn’t satisfied with the 99.9%, but craves that final 0.1%. And I think that voice in all of us is personified, in this story, by the snake. Take a look at what he says to Eve: “אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן” - So I heard about this command, did God really tell you you can’t have from any of the trees in the garden? And that’s such a weird question - of course that’s not what God said. He said pretty much the opposite. But did you notice a little magic word the snake used? Lo tochlu mikol eitz hagan? You are forbidden from eating from every tree?
There’s that word again, kol. The implication of the snake is - if you are forbidden from the 0.1%, well, that’s as if you can’t eat from all the trees. And in some sense, even though Eve corrects the snake, the feeling of dissatisfaction lingers. Hmm...it feels like if I can’t eat from that tree, it’s like I have nothing. Eve isn’t happy with the abundance, knowing that that 0.1% is out of reach.
A few verses later, Eve is still thinking about the tree: וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם - The woman saw that the tree was good to eat, and it was desireable. In creation, God had declared what was good for humanity, and now, humanity is appropriating the term, declaring what is good for herself. And this use of the word “good” comes from an attempt to fulfill a desire. Taavah. And what causes desire? Recognition of a lack. I’m hungry, so I desire food. I’m lonely, I desire love.
But what was Eve’s lack here? She had everything she needed! But, with the snake’s gentle nudge, she became dissatisfied with what she had, and, as a result, she desired, and took from, the one thing that was not hers. The tree that, until now, humanity left alone to convey their respect and love for their Creator.
That arrogance, that attempt to have the final 0.1%, is an attempt to fulfill a lack that isn’t real. Because a person who has 99.9% and isn’t happy...will he really achieve happiness by attaining that final 0.1%? Shouldn’t he spend time trying to be happy, with all of the good that he already has?
And I think that is the connection to our parsha. The verse in bikkurim is trying to teach us to do just that: וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, enjoy all of the goodness, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּלְבֵיתֶךָ - that God has given to you. Be happy with what you have. And, if you aren’t happy with all that goodness, that’s when curses befall you: תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב--מֵרֹב, כֹּל - - inasmuch as you did not serve God in gladness, and goodness of heart, out of all the good that you have. It seems as though this story of abundance and good in the Garden, in the beginning of the Torah, is reflected in the conclusion of the Torah. Adam and Eve were given tov, and were given kol. But did you notice what word is missing in Genesis? Simcha. Happiness.
Maybe, because there was no happiness there. Mankind was given tov, but he did not appreciate it. It seems absurd, and unrelateable, humanity had 99.9% of everything, did they really need more? But...think of that guy you know, or maybe it’s you, working so hard to get that promotion. And when he makes it, when he’s finally there, he’s no happier than he was before. His stress, his anxiety reminds him that Joe makes more than he does. Janet is more successful than he is. So he stays at work a little bit longer. He takes a few calls while he is on vacation. The kids will understand, or at least they should, after all, these calls are paying for all of this.
How many of us think that if we were only in that right relationship, we’d be happy? If we won that award, or went on that trip, we’d fill that lack. We always want more - it’s so hard to be truly happy, knowing that we desire more and more. And it’s absurd, because most of us, watching this video, are pretty comfortable. Our generation is far more wealthy than those before us. We have refrigerators, and toilet paper. We hold all of human knowledge in the palm of our hands, our cell phones. Imagine you could go back in time and explain all of these luxuries to the average medieval peasant. They tell you: “Wow! I’m sure everyone in the 21st century is happy all day long!” And you respond with a shrug: “Sure, I guess…but I’ve never been to Hawaii...”
So is that it? Humans are just hypocrites who’ll be perpetually dissatisfied? That’s pretty depressing. Well, not quite. I think the Torah gives us an antidote, and that antidote is in the language we keep seeing: Hakarat Hatov. Literally, recognition of the good.
There is a profound relationship between simcha, happiness, and tov, goodness. Happiness is simply the human reaction to our experience of goodness. If I am holding hands with the love of my life, if I have something good, then I should be happy. But it’s not that simple, as we’ve seen. Goodness does not generate automatic happiness, there is a step in between. That step is to be consciously aware of the good that you have, to be present with it, to be makir tov, to recognize that it is good. It doesn’t take much, it simply takes consciousness. And it’s hard. When I first got married, holding my wife’s hand made me happy, automatically. Now, sometimes I catch myself making lists in my head about the dishes that need to be done, and the picture frame I keep meaning to hang. But, by choosing to live in the present moment, to be conscious and to actively recognize the good that I have right in front of me, it’s not hard to be in love with the person next to me.
And then...there is a 2nd step to hakarat hatov. Not just knowing that it is good, but recognizing the person or being that enabled this good. Gratitude. Thankfulness. I certainly can’t be in love without my wife. So I smile, in gratitude, that she is holding my hand in turn. I recognize God who brought our lives together. It’s strange, but it’s also beautiful - thankfulness and appreciation to those who give us the greatest gifts in life, makes us enjoy our lives so much more. Try it. Next time you eat grapes, be thankful to the farmer, consider the inventor of the refrigerator, or the workers who packed and delivered the fruit. Be thankful to God, who invented the very notion of tastes and flavors. Doesn’t it make that grape taste more crisp when you bite into it? Isn’t it a bit sweeter? Doesn’t it make you...happier? When you recognize that what you have is good, when you are truly thankful for it...you can’t help but rejoice.
That is the farmer’s declaration when he brings bikkurim, his first fruits. He recites the history of his people in the same way that we consider that we have more wealth than all the generations that preceded us. He is the end-point of the dream of Abraham who was promised this homeland. He is the hopes of those who suffered Egyptian slavery, who could not fathom owning their own land and producing delicious fruits that would sustain their own families. The ritual of bikkurim forces the farmer to recognize that his yield this year, and every year, is not rote. It is wonderful, it is tov. And he recognizes that it is tov, and he gives thanks to God for enabling that tov. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ--וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: Rejoice. You have everything.
But there is a second part of that verse. Not only should you rejoice, and thank God - do it together with those who truly lack. אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ. Share with the Levite and the stranger in your midst. Why? If you desire something, if you perceive that you have some sort of a lack, you cannot be happy, just as Adam and Eve were not happy. But if you do not lack, then you have everything, and if you have everything, shouldn’t you share?
Why wouldn’t we share what we have? We are worried, hey, we don’t have enough ourselves. Let the millionaires and billionaires do the sharing. No, says the Torah. To enjoy what you have, you must truly feel like you have everything. Part of that is your happiness, part of that is gratitude, and a final piece is including others in your abundance.
And now, we are finally in a position to understand these terrible curses. As we mentioned, these curses come: tachat asher lo avadita et Hashem Elokecha bisimcha uvituv levav, merov kol. Inasmuch as you did not serve God in happiness and in goodness of heart out of everything that you had. I don’t think this means that someone who followed every command is getting terrible curses if he wasn’t chipper every morning, that’s not what this verse is talking about. This verse is talking to those of us who have everything, we have kol, we have goodness. But if we don’t recognize it, if we aren’t happy, then we are doomed to a cursed existence.
I don’t know whether the curses are literal, whether there is a divine scorecard where each curse is released on those who do not follow in God’s ways, but I do believe that these curses are consequences of not living a happy existence. Take a look at what I mean:
The man who builds a home but someone else dwells in it. He chooses a woman to marry but someone else will lie with her. He grows a vineyard but the fruits will be enjoyed by others. These curses are bitterly painful, but, in a sense, they describe a person who has “kol,” they have “tov”: they built the home, the vineyard, they found the love of their lives, but they won’t be able to enjoy it. Instead, someone else will. Is this not a punishment that is a perfect measure for measure for someone who had everything, but failed to appreciate it? For someone who has 99.9% but is always focused on what they lack, on that 0.1%? You grew fruits, but you did not appreciate your gifts, you did not live in gratitude, and so, you will never enjoy them. You held the hands of your loved one, but you were never present, and so you will never feel the completeness, the happiness of love.
And consider the most horrific curse, of eating your children. הָאִישׁ הָרַךְ בְּךָ, וְהֶעָנֹג מְאֹד--תֵּרַע עֵינוֹ בְאָחִיו וּבְאֵשֶׁת חֵיקוֹ, וּבְיֶתֶר בָּנָיו אֲשֶׁר יוֹתִיר. The most delicate among you, his eye will become evil, he will become selfish against his brother, his wife, and his remaining children. He won’t even share the leftovers: מִתֵּת לְאַחַד מֵהֶם, מִבְּשַׂר בָּנָיו אֲשֶׁר יֹאכֵל, - he withhold from sharing with any of them. Why? מִבְּלִי הִשְׁאִיר-לוֹ, כֹּל - Because he has nothing left. There is that word, kol, again. Because he was not able to enjoy abundance, he will be left with its opposite, complete and TOTAL lack. This time, that lack won’t be an illusion. It will be real. When you had everything, you didn’t feel like you had quite enough to share with the Levite and with the stranger? Now, you will lack so completely that you will consume your own child in selfishness and refuse to share with your wife, your brother, and your other children.
These curses seem designed, not by a vindictive and sadistic God, but by our own selfishness and lack of gratitude. They expose reality for what it really is. If you have everything, and you are not happy, then don’t you really have nothing? Aren’t you already cursed? Instead, God’s commandments help us recognize the happiness and tov in our lives. When we recognize that tov, we merit the blessings that Moses is talking about. And, strangely, the more we are able to cling to God’s ways and demonstrate our happiness with our “everything,” the more blessings, the more “everything” we get. The more we can share that everything with others.
That is what Moses is saying at the conclusion of the Torah: See that I have placed before you life, and good, as well as evil and death. We have come full circle, O Children of Israel - from back in the Garden at the beginning of the Torah, to entering Israel at the end of the Torah. God wanted to give to us, to have a relationship with us, to have us experience great joy together with Him. He gave us a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and a Tree of Life. Those trees exist today in the form of the commandments that God has given us. If you keep those commands, if you love God, follow Him, God will bless you in the land that you are coming to inherit.
Can we see the abundance of good in our lives? Can we be thankful for all we have? Will we share with others? What will we choose?