What Does the Bible Say About True Happiness? | Aleph Beta

The Right Way To Find Happiness According To The Bible: Part I

What Does The Bible Say About True Happiness?

Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

How does the Bible help us find personal happiness in our lives, and what is true happiness anyway?

This week’s parsha can be broken into two main sections. The first section is about the declarations a farmer needs to make after he brings Bikkurim, the first fruit, and tithes to the Temple. The second section is all about the blessings and curses that will befall the nation of Israel depending on whether they keep their covenant with God. How do these sections fit together? Is there a common thread that unifies our parsha?

Join us in this two-week series, spanning Ki Tavo and Nitzavim, where Rabbi Fohrman addresses the greater theme of what the Bible says about finding true happiness.


Hi everybody this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Ki Tavo, you are watching Aleph Beta.

I want to talk with you in broad terms about how two basic halves of this week's parsha actually mesh together.

What Connects Declarations, Giving and Covenants?

You can really divide our parsha right down the middle into two seemingly disconnected halves. The first half has to do with two different declarations that the Torah wants people to make. The first of them is a declaration that a farmer makes upon bringing Bikurim – his first fruits – up to the Temple. And the declaration is given in great detail, I spoke about it in last year's parsha video on parshat Ki Tavo, you can check that out. But basically in the declaration the farmer says, look we came from Egypt, my father was a wandering Aramean, we were oppressed in Egypt, G-d took us out of there and took us into the land. Basically the farmer expresses his gratefulness and brings the Bikurim – the first fruits – kind of as evidence that G-d has finally fulfilled His promise.

G-d promised to take us into the land and in fact we're here and these fruits that were cultivated by a farmer living in Israel, it's evidence that G-d has finally fulfilled his promise. So that is declaration number 1.

Declaration number 2, known as Vidui Ma'aser, there are these various tithes which you're supposed to give from produce. There's a tithe that goes to the Levi; he doesn't have the ability to farm land himself because he doesn't have land so people support him by giving him things. There's a tithe which you yourself eat, you're supposed to bring it to Jerusalem, it's known as Ma'aser Sheini – the second tithe. There's Ma'asser Oni which is given to the poor.

Anyway you're not supposed to keep these tithes in your house without giving them to the proper people for too long. There's a deadline of three years and once you reach that deadline you have to get them out of your house, give them to the appropriate people.

There too you have to make a declaration, what's known as Vidui Ma'aser. In that declaration you have to say, look I did what I was supposed to do with the tithes, they're no longer in the house, I didn't give them to the wrong people, I didn't eat Ma'aser Sheini when I was impure or anything like that. Basically makes that declaration.

So that's the first part of the Parsha, these two declarations.

Now the second half of the Parsha, as it were, seems to have almost nothing to do with this, it deals in very broad terms with blessings and with curses. There's this elaborate ceremony that the Torah declares whereby when the people of Israel enter into the land half the nation has to stand on Mount Gerizim, half the nation has to stand on Mount Ebal, and they have to commit themselves to this covenant basically. They have to acknowledge that there's a bunch of things they're not supposed to do and that you're cursed if you do these terrible things. And if you don't do those things then you're blessed.

The rest of the Parsha talks about what that actually means that G-d will bless you. So the Torah says what it means: economic prosperity, things are good, fertile land, safety from enemies. Then there's this terrible section of curses that talks about how bad it can get economically and conquest by foreign powers. And that basically finishes of the rest of Parsha Ki Tavo.

The question is how do these two main sections – the blessings and the curses and the covenant in the second part of the parsha, and these two declarations made by the farmer and the person taking these tithes out of the house – how does all that kind of fit together? Or does it fit together?

In Search of a Unifying Theme

Now I just want to say here that the answer to this question is not trivial. The covenant that we're talking about here at the end of Ki Tavo – which if you keep all this blessing comes and if you don't all this curse comes – is a very significant covenant here in the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Torah itself describes it at the very end of Ki Tavo as a covenant that rivals the covenant at Sinai itself. It says there were two covenants: there was the covenant at Sinai back in Mount Chorev, you got the Ten Commandments back when you left Egypt; and now as you're entering the land here is your new covenant that G-d is bringing the entire people in. So this is a very important covenant. The success or failure of the nation of Israel that will soon be a sovereign power of its own land, it will ride on whether or not this covenant is kept.

Indeed, if you look a little further in Deuteronomy, next week's parsha, Nitzavim, and then a little bit further on, Ha'azinu, it's all about this covenant described in this week's parsha. Nitzavim details how seriously G-d takes this covenant, Ha'azinu is an entire song that is meant to stand throughout Jewish history as a witness to the people of Israel concerning how crucial it is that they keep to this covenant.

So it behooves us to really ask what is the nature of this covenant, what makes it tick? And perhaps, if we can understand how the apparently unrelated section of these two declarations of the farmer who is bringing his Bikkurim and the person who is taking out his tithes and making that declaration, if we understand how all of that fits in as a kind of prologue to the covenant, maybe we'll see the covenant itself in a new light. We'll be able to really understand it.

Secrecy and Curses

Let's begin by taking a close look at the body of the covenant itself, what exactly are these declarations that are supposed to be voiced on the mountains of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal? What do the people need to commit themselves to here?

As it turns out the covenant takes the form of a long list of things that the people have to be sure not to do and if they do it they're going to be cursed. I want to play a little game with you, let's actually go through these elements – there are going to be 12 things you have to be really careful not to do otherwise terrible curses will befall the people – and ask ourselves, are they just a random bunch of 12 really bad things or is there some sort of common element that binds them all together?

Okay, so here are the 12 things, what do you say?

Number 1:

Orrur ha'ish asher ya'aseh pessel u'masecha to'avat Hashem – cursed is someone who makes any engraved or molten image;

V'sam ba'sater – and sets it up in secret.

V'anu kol ha'am v'omru amen – and all the people need to answer Amen, yes, we subscribe to this.

Orrur makleh aviv v'imo – cursed be he who dishonors or makes light of his father and mother, the nation has to ascent to this as well.

Orrur masig gevul rei'eihu – cursed is someone who surreptitiously moves over the property marker dividing his land from the land of his fellows, that he has more property than he is entitled to.

Orrur mashgeh iyyver ba'darech – cursed is someone who deceives the blind and makes the blind wander out of his way.

Orrur mateh mishpat ger yosom v'almanah – cursed is the judge who renders an unjust verdict for the widow, for the orphan, for the stranger.

Let's stop right here for a moment before we even get to the others and just see if we can come up with a hypothesis and maybe test it out as we go to the others too.

Just from what we've seen thus far, any common denominators? So at face value very little seems to come to mind, it's not like all of these have to do with sins against your fellow man; I mean the very first of them has to do with a sin against G-d, making those idols and placing them in secret. It's not like all of these have to do with what a private individual does; the last one we talked about has to do with how a judge acts. What is the common denominator if there is any?

I'd like to suggest that the possibility of secrecy is the common denominator. Go back, for example, and listen to the very first of these. It's not just a prohibition against making an idol or a molten image, it's: cursed be the one who makes an idol or a molten image and sets it up in secret – v'sam ba'sater. That's the one who are cursed here. The next one is: makleh aviv v'imo – someone who deals lightly with their parents, doesn't accord them the proper honor, but that's also something that happens in private, it's just between you and them, no one else would necessarily know.

The next one is: masig gevul rei'eihu – you secretly move over the property marker. It all happens in secret.

Mashgeh iyyver ba'darech – someone who causes the blind to wander; well he's blind, he'll never even know that you led him astray.

Next, the judge who perverts the legal outcome of a court case of a vulnerable person – on a widow, an orphan; here too the offence by nature is a secret one. The judge, he can get away with this, it just looks like he has dispensed justice.

The only one who is going to know about the injustice is the vulnerable person themselves; the widow, the orphan, the stranger. No one is going to take them seriously, they'll complain but no one will ever know that you were unfair to them. These are the outcasts of society, what credibility do they have in trying to press their claim against you?

So all of these cases it seems like the curse comes specifically because you're being sneaky, backhanded, secretive, in some of terribly destructive way.

And if you keep on the reading the curses, the idea of secrecy seems to continue. The next several are all about illicit intimate relations with someone, they happen in secret too.

After that, what are the last ones? Cursed is someone who strikes out against his friend in private – ba'sater, again there's the secrecy one more time. Orrur loke'ach shochad l'hakot nefesh dam naki – cursed be the judge who takes a bribe to incriminate an innocent person, it happens in secret.

So a common denominator here seems to be the secret nature of all this wrongdoing. We'll be able to really understand it.

The Bible's 'Secret' Path to Finding Happiness?

By the way, it's not just me who says that, I noticed [later 9:59] Rashbam actually makes this point, one of Rashi's grandchildren. He notes the secret nature of all of this, says that's the common denominator of it all.

Some of that secret wrongdoing can be against those who are above you; G-d in the case of idols, your parents in the case of dishonoring them. Some targeted against peers; moving the property boundary between you and your neighbor. Some target those below you, the vulnerable parts of society; if you lead astray the blind person.

So whether you're dealing with those above you or those below you or those across from you, in all of these cases the nation has to commit itself to stay away from this kind of secret wrongdoing.

It turns out though that this covenant which seems so vitally important to the building of this new nation in Israel, this covenant predicated upon the 12 curses uttered on these two mountains, this covenant has a larger story to tell than just secrecy. This covenant is about something else as well, something we all desperately crave: it's actually about happiness.

If you look carefully at this text there is a marvelous undercurrent in this covenant and that undercurrent, if we follow its contours well, will lead us to some surprising discoveries about the nature of happiness itself.

We'll come back and look at that next week.

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