Ki Savo: The Torah Way to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Savo, we read of the brachos (blessings) that will come if we follow the path of Torah. The pasukim (verses) say:

And it will be, if you listen to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, to keep, to perform all of His mitzvos that I command you this day, then Hashem, your G-d, will make you supreme over all the nations of the earth; וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַבְּרָכוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וְהִשִּׂיגֻךָ – and all these blessings will come upon you and overtake you, if you listen to the voice of Hashem, your G-d.  בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, בָּעִיר; וּבָרוּךְ אַתָּה, בַּשָּׂדֶה – Blessed are you in the city, blessed are you in the field; Blessed are the fruit of your womb, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your animals, the offspring of your cattle and the herds of your flocks (Devarim 28:1-4). 

In a phrase evocative of the simanin (symbolic foods) that we eat on the night of Rosh HaShana, the pasuk says: וּנְתָנְךָ ה’ לְרֹאשׁ, וְלֹא לְזָנָב, וְהָיִיתָ רַק לְמַעְלָה, וְלֹא תִהְיֶה לְמָטָּה – and Hashem shall place you as a head and not as a tail; you shall be only above and you shall not be below… (ibid, v.13). 

How we long, hope and pray for the day when the fulfillment of this blessing will be realized, when the Jewish nation will truly be for the head, and no longer trampled upon by the umos ha’olam (nations of the world) as the tail.  And so, we place a fish (or sheep) head on the Rosh HaShana table, with the prayer that this be the year that we become the head.  The symbolic food is meant – not only as a prayer, but – to inspire us to further grow, to strive for greatness, to make this year be the year when we will all – personally and nationally – be for the head, and not for the tail.

And then, in stark contrast to the blessings, the parsha tells of the terrible curses that will befall us, shall we throw off the yoke of Torah, for we: have not listened to the voice of Hashem your G-d.  You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the field; cursed will be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of the ground; cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.  You will be smitten by plague, by worry, by the wasting away with fever, parching and the sword, you will be pursued until annihilation… (Devarim 28:15-69), R”L!

Not for naught are the curses read quickly and quietly, as we hope and pray that the year and its curses ends – שתכלה השנה וקללותיה (Megillah 31b), and the new year brings only blessings.

Yet, the blessings, which will come when we follow the path of Torah, depend on more than our actions alone.  Service of G-d cannot be completed by rote, by mere habit, without thought or emotion.  It is not enough to “do the mitzvos,” we must feel the mitzvos, and carry them out with kavanah (intent), as dutiful, mindful, loving, dedicated, ovdei Hashem (servants of G-d).

So integral is the emotive experience to asiyas ha’mitzvos (performance of the mitzvos), that when the terrible klalos (curses) are listed, the Torah makes a startling assertion and accusation. 

וּבָאוּ עָלֶיךָ כָּל-הַקְּלָלוֹת הָאֵלֶּה, וּרְדָפוּךָ וְהִשִּׂיגוּךָ, עַד, הִשָּׁמְדָךְ – and all these curses will come upon you and pursue you and overtake you, until you are destroyed, because you will not have listened to the voice of Hashem, your G-d, to observe His commandmentsתַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה׳ אלקיך בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב כֹּל – Because you did not serve Hashem your G-d with gladness and with goodness of heart, out of an abundance of everything (Devarim 28:45-47). 

R’ Hershel Schachter teaches, “Everyone is searching for happiness.  Even in the tradition of the American founding fathers, all men are entitled to ‘the pursuit of happiness.’  Exactly what constitutes happiness?  To some it means money; to others, kavod (honor).  To others it means a yacht; and yet to others, a cigarette. 

“The pasuk in Koheles (6:7) states that whatever man acquires will neither satisfy him nor make him happy….Jewish souls come mitachas kissei ha’kavod (from below the throne of Hashem) and are used to being close to the Shechina (Divine Presence).  All the money, yachts and cigarettes in the world will not bring a Jewish soul satisfaction… Chazal (Chagiga 5b) teach that there is no sadness when one is in the presence of Hashem…

“Happiness can be attained.   We all have the opportunity and the privilege to daven and to learn.  I rejoice when they tell me: Let us go to the house of Hashem!’ (Ps.122:1)  It’s all up to us!” (Days of Awe, Days of Joy, p.3-6)

When we serve Hashem – not only by doing, but also by feeling – when the mitzvos are performed b’simcha, with true joy for the privilege of serving G-d, then we will be for the head and not for the tail; then the blessings will eternally come to fruition. 

R’ Yitzchak Zilberstein relates the following powerful story: A beis din (Jewish court of law) in Eretz Yisrael had to establish whether a certain secular individual was Jewish, for marriage purposes.  The man was so distant from Torah and mitzvos, that he did not know anything about Judaism.  The judges on the beis din asked him to try and think of some custom he had seen in his parents’ house, or some words that his parents had been accustomed to saying. 

The man remembered that his mother would frequently say the words: תַּחַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה׳ אלקיך בְּשִׂמְחָה.  The judges asked the man if he knew why his mother used to repeat these words often. 

The man replied, “My mother was in Auschwitz together with the Klausenberger Rebbe, and she recognized that he was a holy man of G-d.  She told us that all day, even when he was performing backbreaking labor, the Rebbe would whisper these words to himself.  She was convinced that these words would be a merit for salvation, so she would say them constantly as well.  Even after she was liberated from the camps, and went on to build a new life, she continued to say these words all the time” (Aleinu L’Shabei’ach, Devarim, p.373).

May we merit, despite the trials and tribulations that we all face, to recognize the goodness that Hashem bestows upon us each and every day.  May that recognition and appreciation lead us to serving Hashem b’simcha, with true joy, come what may.  And then, may we finally merit that the year and its curses shall end forever, as we usher in the new year – and a new era – that will be only good, only blessed and only joyful, for us and all of Klal Yisrael, amen v’amen

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,

Michal

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