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So this week's Parsha begins with Moshe having gathered all the people and telling them that he is ushering them into a covenant with G-d. Some of the commentators such as the Rashbam seems to suggest that the covenant that Moses is talking about is actually the covenant that you and I talked about last week. It's the covenant involving the 12 secret sins that must not be done, that's supposed to verbalized on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. So if you take that approach then really the end of the Torah is kind of all about Israel accepting this covenant - it must be a pretty important covenant, we began to talk about it in last week's Parsha video, I want to continue that discussion with you now.
Here's something that's been bothering me about this covenant. As you may know from last week, G-d says that if you fail to keep the terms of this covenant there's bad stuff that's going to happen. There's a whole long section of a few dozen verses that details all that really bad stuff; slavery, exile, things like that. But just about two-thirds the way through that whole litany of bad stuff, the Torah takes a break for a second and kind of gives you almost a throwaway line. Just a little sentence that comes out of the blue and says; And you know why all this stuff is happening to you? Tachat asher loh avadeta et Hashem Elokecha b'simcha ube'tuv leivav - because you failed to serve G-d with gladness of heart and joy. That's why.
I'm reading those words and I'm thinking, what was that about? If the Torah really thinks that's why all these terrible curses would befall the people, then you should come out and just say that at the very beginning. Before you even get to this whole litany of awful, terrible things that are going to happen, say, I expect you to serve Me with joy and gladness of heart and if not, here's the terrible things that will happen. Don't just go and launch into this whole laundry list of awful consequences and then two-thirds of the way through stop and say, and by the way this is happening because you failed to serve G-d with joy. As if I like knew that already somehow. How am I supposed to know that? I thought this bad stuff comes because you committed these 12 secret sins, what happened to all of that?
It turns out that there might be a reason why the Torah is assuming you'd already know that all this terrible stuff would happen to you because of a failure to serve G-d with joy. The reason is, is that joy has actually been an undercurrent in the whole discussion that the Torah has been having with us ever since the beginning of last week's Parsha, Ki Tavo. When Israel is beckoned to go to the top of Mount Ebal and to actually write down the blessings and the curses on these huge, big stones, right before that it says; And you should rejoice before G-d as you're doing this. Strange, what does rejoicing have to do with it? But there's that undercurrent of joy. Even earlier, when we were talking about the farmer who comes to the Temple with his basket of fruits - and we discussed this in last week's Parsha video - there too the Torah says; And after he gives his declaration for the first fruits he should rejoice before G-d. Joy has been this constant undercurrent in everything the Torah has been talking to us about.
As a matter of fact, if you go back to last week's video I talked about how there are so many different themes in last week's Parsha, and even though the themes seem to be very, very different, one of the things that maybe binds the themes together under the surface is that undercurrent of joy. What are we to make of that? How do we understand that? How could joy pull together all of these different ideas?
If you think about it, if you had to summarize Ki Tavo - last week's Parsha - you might say that Parsha deals with three people. It deals with the farmer who comes to the Temple with his basket of first fruits. It deals with this fellow who has all these tithes that he's stored up in his household that you're supposed to give to people in need, people like the Levi who doesn't have any land of his own, poor people. Another kind of tithe known as Ma'asser Sheini, is the tithe that you, yourself bring to Jerusalem to celebrate and to delight in before G-d. But this fellow has separated these tithes but he's kept them for some reason in his house and the Torah talks about what he needs to do, how he needs to make this declaration as he lets go and actually delivers the tithes to the people or places they're supposed to go. That's the second person. The third person you might say is the person that we're addressing in the top of Mount Ebal with these 12 secret sins - the hypothetical person who is cursed with all of these terrible curses if they don't keep these obligations, if they transgress them in secret.
What if, instead of thinking about them as three different people, we looked at this as a kind of story that was evolving, we looked at it almost as if it was one person going through three different stages? A stage we might call success, another stage we might call flirting with failure and then a third stage which we might call actual failure. Let me explain what I mean by that.
The story begins with our farmer, things have gone well for him agriculturally, I mean he's obviously had a good year, he's got all these fruits, he's bringing some of them to the Temple. But when you think about it his good fortune is not just the product of a single, good harvest, no, it's really much more than that. He actually lives at a pretty privileged point in history. If you go back a bunch of years things weren't so pretty. This guy's forefathers, they were travelling through the desert for 40 years, and before that, 400 years of slavery. There were many generations of misery before fate smiled upon this particular farmer. So if this farmer takes a good, hard look at himself, there's a very uncomfortable question he needs to confront. What distinguishes me from all of the previous generations who had it so tough? Yeah, I worked hard but I can't take credit for the timely rains. Bottom line, yes, this wonderful bounty is mine, but can I say in all honesty that I deserve this? Why was I so fortunate?
It's actually a chilling question and, by the way, not such a foreign question for those of us who live 70 years after the Holocaust. Sure, I went to Graduate School, I got a good job, but look at how fate smiled upon me, could I just as easily have been born 75 years ago in Poland? Do I really deserve this?
So here is what everything depends upon; how will the farmer choose to confront that question? He has a choice and the Torah lays out for him what he must do if he is to face his not-entirely-deserved good fortune with integrity. If you're that farmer, you have to recognize that what you have is a gift and you have to learn to share it. It's as simple as that. Listen to how the Torah puts it. Here's this farmer, the Torah describes him taking his basket of first fruits and putting it down before G-d's altar. Then the words are; V'anita v'amarta - he has to answer. What does he have to answer, no one said anything? But as I discussed last year, it's as if that basket has a silent question for him, a question he must in fact answer. Do you get it? Do you understand?
And you have to answer that question and the farmer begins his declaration; I know it wasn't always like this, he says. Arami oved avi - my father was just a wandering Aramean, we went down to Egypt, we were oppressed there for many years, we screamed in pain, G-d heard our cries. We travelled through the desert for many years and here I am, the last link in that chain. I understand the privileged position that history has placed me in. I get it.
That, right there, is the antidote to his crisis. Because if he fails to recognize that it's a gift he's saddled by guilt, why me? But once you recognize that, look at the next words of the Torah; V'samachta b'kol ha'tov - and then rejoice in all of the goodness that G-d gave you, you can now finally be happy, you can delight in the gift having acknowledged it's a gift. Ah, but then there's one other thing you have to do, look at the next words of the Torah. Who should you rejoice with? With the Levi who doesn't have any land, with the poor people and the stranger who also doesn't have any land of his own, and when you do all this your happiness will be complete. If you can acknowledge your privilege, thank the Almighty for it, and share what it is that you've been given, then you'll be able to live with that undeserved gift that history and good fortune have placed in your lap.
But what if you fail to do this? What if you fail to thank and fail to share? What if you turn into the next kind of guy we meet, person number 2? It's the fellow who stored up years of tithes in his house; he separated those tithes from his produce but hasn't given them to those who he ought to. What's going on with this guy? What's actually going on with him is that he's withholding thanks and he's failing to share. Who do the tithes go to? The Levi who doesn't have any land on his own, so share your bounty with him. The poor people, so share your bounty with them. The other tithe - Ma'asser Sheni? That you bring up to Jerusalem and you rejoice before G-d, you partake of it with your family in a celebratory kind of way, you're thanking G-d for the good fortune that you got. All of these tithes are about sharing and thanking.
The same thing that the farmer needed to confront, this fellow needs to confront - the fellow with the tithes - except he's on the verge of failing. He has stored up all these tithes but he's not letting go of them, he's keeping them in his house. So that's person number 2. But, if this person is sort of balanced on the precipice, flirting with the failure to thank and to share, the next person we meet, the third person is the portrait of failure itself. He's the one who transgresses the 12 secret sins.
What, in fact, would motivate someone to commit those 12 secret sins? How exactly do you go to sleep at night, do you live with yourself if you're the guy who sneaks around, moves the property marker between his house and his fellow's house in secret? Gives bad advice in secret. Always trying to get a leg up in secret. How does he rationalize this? If you can imagine a conversation with him and his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist is going to say, what makes you think you're entitled to all of this? That's the whole point, he does somehow think he's entitled to all of this, it's like life has given me a bad shake and I'm going to do what I can to be able to get it under the table. If I didn't get it over the table from life, I'm going to take it under the table from life. I'll sneak around and make sure I get what's due to me.
So let's talk about this third guy at the top of Mount Ebal, this portrait of failure. How did he get that way? I want to suggest the Torah's answer is he is just the third link in this chain. It all boils down to a choice you make, the choice epitomized by that first guy, the farmer. The farmer, he is the recipient of undeserved bounty, what if he fails in what the Torah asks of him? What if he can't thank? What if he can't share? What happens then? Then your only way out of the guilt of your undeserved, wonderful circumstances is to lie to yourself and convince yourself that you do deserve this. Once I start getting used to thinking that I deserve stuff that I really don't, I start losing my bearings, I no longer trust my intuitive sense of what I deserve and what I don't deserve. I don't know the difference between the two anymore.
Now I look around, I see stuff I don't have, and I wonder to myself, do I deserve that too? Why don't I have that? That extra property over there doesn't feel so different than the property I already have, and suddenly I'm resentful, why don't I have that? How come he's got a bigger house than me? I'll move over the property marker. How come I got stuck in this relationship? Oh, I'll have a secret, intimate encounter with that forbidden person over there. I'll get what's due to me. The farmer has a choice, yes, but if he chooses badly, he ends up as person number 2, and eventually as person number 3.
So at the end of all of this, after detailing all the terrible consequences that will come to that person who commits all of those secret crimes, the Torah just backhandedly says - as if we've known it all along - you know why all this happened? Tachat asher loh avadeta et Hashem Elokecha b'simcha ube'tuv leivav meirov kol - because you didn't serve G-d with happiness in the bounty that you were given by Him. You weren't able to confront the undeserved gifts squarely, that's why. This isn't the first time this idea has come up, that's why the Torah talks about it backhandedly, we've been talking about this the whole time, what do you think the whole story with the farmer and the guy who has the tithes in his house is all about? It's just one, long progression. I'm just showing you the end product here. Don't be that guy at the top of Mount Ebal, be the farmer who can look his good fortune in the eye and can say thank you from the bottom of the heart and can share what he has.
In the end it's nothing less than a recipe for how happiness can be pursued. Have the courage to recognize undeserved good fortune and have the generosity of spirit to thank the Almighty for it and to share your bounty with those whose position in life is less privileged than your own.
Hey, it's Rabbi Fohrman again, thanks for watching this video. If you have comments, thoughts, questions, observations, feedback, I would love to hear about it. Just comment in our little comments section below. I don't get a chance to respond to all of them, but I do like reading them and will actually respond now and then. So have a great Shabbos, look forward to hearing what you have to say.
1. Bereishit: Thank You, God...For Not Making Me A Woman?
2. Noach: Why Aren't Dinosaurs In the Torah?
3. Lech Lecha: The Battle For Abraham's Legacy
4. Vayeira: Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael and...Exodus?
5. Vayeira: Epilogue
6. Chayei Sarah: Eliezer and Samuel's Surprising Connection
7. Toldot: What Is Isaac's Legacy?
8. Vayeitzei: Understanding Rachel's World
9. Vayishlach: From Jacob to Israel
10. Vayeishev: Does God Speak To Us Today?
11. Miketz: Reversing the Sale of Joseph
12. Vayigash: Understanding Pharaoh's Dream
13. Shmot: Does God Really "Love" Us?
14. Va'era: Seeing God in Science
15. Bo: God's Justice In Action
16. Beshalach: Fruit Trees In the Sea?
17. Beshalach: Epilogue
18. Yitro: Seeing Ten Commandments in the Burning Bush
19. Mishpatim: Does Our History Become Laws?
20. Mishpatim: Epilogue
21. Terumah: Angels In the Tabernacle? Part I/2
22. Tetzaveh: Angels In the Tabernacle?- Part 2/2
23. Ki Tisa: A Closer Look At Kiddush
24. Vayakhel-Pekudei: God In Space, God In Time
25. Vayikra: How Can We Relate To Sacrifices Today?
26. Tzav: A Deeper Look At The Priestly Role
27. Tzav: Epilogue
28. Shemini: What Does Aaron Teach Us About Loss?
29. Tazria-Metzora: Rejoining the Community
30. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Social Justice...and Sacrifices?
31. Emor: An Epic View of Jewish Holidays
32. Behar-Bechukotai: Walking With God
33. Bamidbar: Why We Count
34. Beha'alotecha: Where It All Went Wrong
35. Shelach: How Can We Relate To Such a Vengeful God?
36. Korach: Why Did Korach Rebel?
37. Chukat: Why Did Moses Hit The Rock?
38. Balak: What Is Israel's Purpose In The World?
39. Pinchas: What Is True Leadership?
40. Matot-Masei: The Art of Negotiation
41. Devarim: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 1/2
42. Va'etchanan: What Did Moses Do Wrong?- Part 2/2
43. Eikev: Why Does The Nation Of Israel Merit The Land?
44. Re'eh: Why Do We Need Both Oral and Written Law?
45. Shoftim: The Significance of Saving Private Ryan
46. Ki Teitzei: How To Merit Long Life
47. Ki Tavo: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 1
48. Nitzavim: The Pursuit of Happiness- Part 2/2
49. Vayeilech: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 1/3
50. Ha'azinu: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 2/3
51. V'Zot Habracha: Moses' Farewell To Israel, Part 3/3
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