Ki Tavo(Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
The True Source of Joy
A great deal of this week's Torah portion outlines the devastating punishments that would befall the Jewish people if they do not follow the Torah. In the midst of the rebuke the Torah gives us a deeper insight into the cause of all the terrible punishments enumerated here; "Since you did not serve HaShem, your God, with joy and goodness of heart, from rov kol (the abundance of everything)." (1) The simple understanding of this verse is that the Jewish people did not perform mitzvot with happiness despite the fact that they were blessed with the abundance of everything.(2)
The Arizal explains the verse according to the Kabbala in a slightly different way. He says that the Torah is saying that we may have performed mitzvot with a certain degree of happiness, however our main joy did not derive from observing the Torah, rather from the joy of 'rov kol' which refers to all other sources of happiness.(3) Thus, God is telling the Jewish people that the joy of Avodat Hashem (serving God) must be far greater than the pleasure derived from other endeavors. This is a lesson that is of great relevance to Rosh Hashanah: The main service of Rosh Hashanah is to make God King. A significant aspect of this is to recognize that God is the only source of meaning, all other 'sources' of pleasure are meaningless. This is also a prerequisite to the teshuva (repentance) process leading up to Yom Kippur. because if a person's desires are not purely towards serving God, then he will find it almost impossible to avoid sin. There will be times when his desires clash with God's will and his service of God will inevitably suffer. Thus, any teshuva he does on Yom Kippur will be tainted by his outlook on life - that God is not the only source of true meaning and joy.
It is important to note that even if a person somehow avoids sinning whilst pursuing his other desires he will still face unpleasant consequences. Rav Yissochor Frand(4) tells a frightening story that illustrates this point. The Chiddushei Harim once travelled with a man on his carriage that was pulled by two horses. After a few miles, one of the horses died, causing great distress to its owner. A few miles later, the other horse also died. The owner was so distressed at the loss of his horses that meant so much to him that he sat crying for a long time until he cried so much that he died. That night, the Chiddushei Harim had a dream; in that dream he saw that the man who had died, received Olam Haba (the next world). But what was his Olam Haba? A lovely carriage with two beautiful horses. This story teaches us that our Olam Haba is created by what we value in Olam Hazeh (this world) - for this man, the most important thing in his life was his horses and carriage, therefore, that was what he got for eternity.
One may ask, it does not seem to be so bad for a person to receive in Olam Haba that which he cherishes so much in Olam Hazeh. Rav Frand answers this question. He says that when he was a young child he always wanted a slingshot with which to play with but his parents refused. Imagine if, at the time of his wedding, his parents would come to him and say, "here is the slingshot that you always wanted!" As a child, the slingshot was valuable to him, but now he has grown out of it. So too, we may strive to acquire various pleasures in Olam Hazeh, such as money or honor, believing that they will provide us with contentment. But when we arrive in Olam Haba we will see the truth of the words of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto in Path of the Just: "everything else [apart from closeness to God] that people believe are good is nothing but emptiness."(5) In the next world we will see with perfect clarity, how meaningless are those things that we put so much energy into acquiring in this world.
The rebuke of Ki Savo is a stark reminder that it is not enough to merely observe the mitzvot, but that it must be the sole driving force in our lives. Honor, power, money, food and any other 'pleasure' are all illusionary sources of meaning - making God King means realizing that He is the only source of true happiness.
1. Ki Savo, 28:47.
2. See Rashi and Gur Aryeh.
3. This Arizal was quoted by Rav Yissochor Frand shlit"a.
4. Tape: Four questions for Yom Kippur.
5. Path of the Just, Ch. 1.