School started again, and as is appropriate after the long summer of being away, on the first day, we talk about our journeys; journey with a small j and a capital J. We share experiences, as we look backwards and forward on, and add meaningful quotes. I especially like Peter J. Palmer’s from his book “The Courage to Teach” who says: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you”. I often think of my life as a giant puzzle I put together without having the cover picture; sometime a piece I thought was the middle of the sky, turns out to be a deep, beautiful lake on the other side. I try to listen for the hints and keep watching with amazement as the picture unfolds.
It’s slightly past the full moon of Elul which means less than two weeks until Rosh Hashana, and ushering the New Year! The last Shabbatot of the year are dedicated to balancing contradictions: Ki Tetze – last week, and Ki Tavo, this week; and then, next week, Nitzavim – Vayelech on the same Shabbat. The first set can be loosely translated as “going out” and “coming in”; the second set means “standing” and ”walking”.
As so often, we’re asked to simultaneously hold two contradicting positions. We’d like it to be all one way. Or another. But that’s not what it’s about. Balance is a powerful theme all year and especially at this season with the images of the heavenly scales weighing our actions, and even the upcoming (astrological sign of) Libra. How to maintain? Just when we think we “got it”, that sense of equanimity, it rocks a bit, and one side goes up, Or down. It takes sooo much patience to fine tune it; so easy to lose.
One of the strange “curses” / “consequences” in this week’s reading is this (28:29):
כט וְהָיִיתָ מְמַשֵּׁשׁ בַּצָּהֳרַיִם, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְמַשֵּׁשׁ הַעִוֵּר בָּאֲפֵלָה… 29 And thou shalt grope at noonday, as the blind person gropes in darkness…
What is the added value of the words “in darkness”? what does it matter to a blind person if it’s noon or night, if anyway s/he can’t see? The commentators answer: at noon, others, who can see, can help, but at night, no one notices the blind person because no one can see. The curse doubles: Being in darkness – physically, emotionally, spiritually – gets many times worse when, on top of our own inability to “see”, we’re alone, and there is no one there to lend us a hand.
There are a few surprising instructions in this last book that’s almost coming to its end. If we didn’t know it to be serious Deuteronomy, we might think it’s from some New Age guide book. The first was when we were “commanded to love”, a seemingly oxymoron; and now – a commandment to be joyful.
Be happy, says the Torah. Be happy, says the book that has no problem – in the very same parasha! – to spell out awful consequences in case we misbehave – many of which came true.
And if not, you’ll be punished.
What? Why?? Isn’t being happy just an “extra” bonus, after doing all the other “chores”? isn’t keeping mitzvot just really hard work? Who cares about “happy”! just do the right thing; “it’s the Law”!
But the Torah thinks otherwise.
Here’s the text (Deuteronomy 28:47) right from the heart of this week’s “curses” section:
תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּשִׂמְחָה, וּבְטוּב לֵבָב–מֵרֹב, כֹּל
The easy translation is “because you did not serve Hashem your God with joyfulness, and with goodness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things“;
There are two ways to read this verse. One, as translated here (above), but I’d like to parse the verse differently, and separate only the first 4 words out:
תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָבַדְתָּ
This can simply mean:
Because you did not serve (Hashem… etc as above).
Or (and I admit that some will consider it a “creative” reading), it could mean:
Because you served “No”.
That is, the “sin” here is that we’ve “worshiped” – stayed focused on – negativity. We gave precedence to the “don’t” part of the commandments. We were big on the “no’s”. We fixated on the “chumrot” – strictures – and what we – but mostly others… – are doing wrong. Someone was always not quite perfect enough. No matter what, the cup remained half empty. Yes, true, we got so much of what we wanted; things are pretty good, in fact, not too bad, but, ah, well, not quite “perfect”. If only…
That’s when the second half of the verse comes in. Not only should we not “worship the no’s” – it’s not enough to “avoid” the negative and remain “parve”. But rather “with Hashem your G-d, (you should be) in joy and goodness of the heart for the (amazing) everything you have”.
In Hebrew, there are two words for joy – simcha & sason. The latter, sason, is unexpected joy (‘hey, look, I found a treasure!) while simcha is a joy one must work hard for (“ve’samachta bechagecha” – be joyful in your holiday, as we’re instructed in Deuteronomy 16:14). We are not commanded to be in sason (although G-d can be yasis – causing joy); but, we are commanded to be “same’ach”, which means the Torah thinks that is something we can work at, and that is within our power.