"Because you did not serve HaShem, your G-d, with happiness and with gladness of heart..."
The Torah reading of Ki Tavo opens with dessert. The description of the bringing of the first-fruits to the Holy Temple and the accompanying acknowledgment by the Israelite worshiper of G-d's loving kindness towards Israel as a nation and towards himself as an individual is the defining and climactic moment of our people in time, (redemption), and space, (Israel, Jerusalem, the Holy Temple). This "dessert" is not an optional addition to our relationship with G-d but a very necessary embellishment to all which has taken place leading up to it. Its obligatory nature, however, does not make it any less sweet. On the contrary, the fact that we are commanded to take such a naturally fulfilling and exhilarating step only enhances the sweetness of the moment. It contains no calories and no down side: the perfect dessert!
Torah then takes a step back and describes the initial obligations the entire nation is to perform literally upon its first steps in the land of Israel, even before the liberation of the land, or the unification of the twelve tribes under King David, or the destruction of Amalek, or the establishment of Jerusalem as Israel's capital city, or the building of the Holy Temple. These obligations include the removing of twelve large stones from the Jordan River, establishing them as a monument, standing as a nation on Mounts Eval and Gerizim, pronouncing the prescribed blessings and curses from these two lofty peaks, and finally, building a large altar from these very same stones. Unlike the commandment of the first-fruits, these acts mark only the beginning and not the crowning moments of Israel's historic mission to possess the land G-d promised her and realize within her borders a Torah-informed society from which G-d's truth will spread forth to the four corners of the earth. In terms of the spiritual maturation necessary to complete such a transformation, the distance between these two sets of commandments is no less than light years.
Later in our reading Torah seems to make a dramatic departure from these positive and pleasing commandments to a long litany of afflictions which will visit Israel if she fails to "serve HaShem, your G-d, with happiness and with gladness of heart..." (Deuteronomy 28:47) Until now it has been clear that Israel has a covenant with G-d and it is incumbent upon Israel to perform all of the commandments she has received, and, in response, G-d will fulfill His promise to Israel. But now a new element has been introduced: It is no longer enough that Israel perform all the commandments, but she is obliged to fulfill them with "happiness and with gladness of heart." (ibid) How does one measure such a thing? This is not a legalistic requirement which can be written into the fine print of the law nor can it be translated into a verifiable set of provisos. We are talking about the contents of one's heart.
Actually, Torah is not suggesting this kind of distinction at all. Torah is telling us something quite different: One can perform all of the requirements of any given commandment, and even do so with a flourish, but if it is done without a concomitant inner joy then the commandment hasn't been fulfilled at all. The difference lies between performance and fulfillment. Mere mechanical performance won't cut it. The Torah has jarred our consciousness into a whole other level. Of course this is what Torah intended all along, but now as Israel is preparing to enter the land and therefore to enter into a true and complete relationship with G-d, this very crucial point must be made abundantly clear.
The United States Declaration of Independence speaks of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The founding fathers borrowed these lofty concepts, of course, from Torah itself: G-d grants each of us life, and has blessed us with liberty, that is, the ability to discern and choose between good and evil. And G-d, via His Torah, blesses us with the guaranteed, iron-clad right and obligation to pursue true happiness. And what is true happiness? The fulfillment of His commandments. Torah does not define happiness as the attainment of material things, or the acquisition of earthly power or influence. It does not define happiness as the gaining of status, fame or notoriety. Torah defines happiness as one thing: the fulfillment of Torah commandments, and therefore the fulfillment of our relationship with G-d. This applies both on the individual level and on the national level. And this true fulfillment of our Torah commitments brings "happiness and with gladness of heart" (ibid) both to ourselves and to G-d.
So Torah has not digressed by inserting here a long list of the down side of not fulfilling our Torah obligations with happiness and joy, but it has, in fact, shown us the way, the only way, to progress as a nation from the raising of stones from the Jordan River bed to the utter joy and gratitude expressed by the pilgrim who brings his first-fruits to the inner courtyard of the House of G-d, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Happiness is a much maligned concept and it has been kidnapped and held hostage by snake-oil dealers and hucksters, politicians and ideologues, operators and even self-proclaimed spiritual guides, each claiming that what they're holding in their hand, that what they've got to sell, is true happiness. It's all a sham. Happiness is what occurs when man and G-d are of one will. This, Torah teaches us that is is achieved through the fulfillment of G-d's commandments. And only in the land of Israel can all the commandments be fulfilled. This is true happiness. Not a reward for performing G-d word, but the act itself of fulfilling G-d's word. May we all be blessed with such happiness!
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven, apropos of parashat Ki Tavo, discuss both coming into the Land, and coming into the New Year, and declare unequivocally: Complacency is NOT an option! Israel is obliged not only to enter the land of Israel, to conquer it and possess it and to build within it a Torah-based society, but at the same time to make it vividly and preeminently and undeniably and unquestionably and unassailably clear to all the nations around her, that the people of Israel and the land of Israel are united forever by the Torah of Israel and that it is the supernal will of the G-d of Israel that Israel shall dwell within her land forever. This is the message of Ki Tavo and this is the message of today's current upheavals.