Excerpted from Jerry Hochbaum’s The Hidden Light: Biblical Paradigms for Leadership, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers
The Restoration of Self
Parashat Ki Tavo contains the tokhaḥah, one of the most foreboding chapters in the Torah, in which the Torah relates all the tragic events that will befall the Jewish people if they do not observe its precepts. It is such a sorrowful description of the events that will befall the Jewish people that it is read sotto voce and very quickly by the ba’al keriah in the synagogue.
Is there anything that we can learn from this chapter describing the composite tragedies that will befall us if we – as individuals or as a community – deviate from the Torah? I believe the answer is provided in two verses of the tokhaḥah.
The first verse explains why the events described in the tokhaḥah will occur: “Taḥat asher lo avadeta et Hashem Elokekha b’simḥah,” because you have not served God with joy. It is very interesting that in the parshiyot that precede Ki Tavo, the Torah describes a multitude of mitzvot relating to man’s required behavior toward his fellow man and God. Yet in the tokhaḥah, there is little specific mention of any of the lapses from those mitzvot. The Torah states explicitly that all the tragic events contained therein result from our failure to serve God in simḥah, joy.
From this text it appears that joy should be the underlying disposition in our service of God. “Ivdu et Hashem b’simḥah,” contends the Psalmist. We are required to serve God in a state of joy. The Kotzker Rebbe makes this same point cogently in his own unique fashion. He raises this pertinent question in Yiddish: “Vi kricht min arous fun der
blota?” How does one escape the quicksand of tragedies confronting the Jewish people? His response is also drawn from the Psalms. “Ki b’simḥah tetze’u,” go forth in joy. Simḥah is the exit vehicle.
So we are advised by the Torah and the Psalms, via the Kotzker Rebbe, that joy is the indispensable disposition for Jews in the service of God. It is the ultimate prophylactic against the potential tragedies enumerated in the tokhaḥah.
The question remains: How do we achieve this disposition of joy individually and collectively as Jews? The answer, I believe, is provided in a second text in the tokhaḥah: “Hager asher b’kirbekha ya’aleh . . .mala mala, v’ata tered mata mata,” the alien who is with you will rise higher and higher, and you will descend lower and lower. The simple interpretation of this sentence is that the foreign leaders who will rule the societies in which the Jews will be dispersed in the Diaspora will grow more and more powerful, while the Jews, on the other hand, will simultaneously decline, falling lower and lower.
This verse can also be understood in an even more powerful, psychologically incisive manner. In Western civilization today, Jews fill many roles in the secular societies in which we live, as Jews but also as professionals and citizens. Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook wisely advised us that our existence in the Diaspora can – and often does – distort the importance, priority, and commitment we assign to these different roles. That is to say, the culture and values of the societies in which we reside, which are often foreign to our traditions, can undermine our deportment and behavior in our role as Jews and the priority we should assign to it.
The “ger” in our midst – that is, the alien influences inherent in the roles we play in secular society as citizens, in our professional work, and in our social interactions – may become the dominant focus of our lives. Those alien elements may rise and grow to such importance that they become more valued by us than our Jewish selves.
And as a result, our true identity as Jews – reflected in our traditions, culture, and, indeed, the Torah itself – becomes more and more minimal in our lives. Those alien elements which envelop us on a regular basis in the Diaspora can weaken, offset, or even invalidate our identity as Jews, that which constitutes our essential selves.
This is the greatest tragedy that can befall us. Even if we retain some exterior aspects of our previous lives, when the alien elements become the dominant force in our personalities, the simḥah that provides emotional meaning and depth to our service of God will become progressively constrained, diminishing us inalterably. If we are not who
we really are or should be, we inevitably become joyless.
The Maharal explains the difference between matzah and ḥametz in the manner in which we celebrate our liberation on Passover. Matzah, unleavened bread, contains only flour and water. To ḥametz we add additional spices and liquids to enrich the bread. Matzah, the metaphor for liberation on Passover, requires us to eliminate our consumption of ḥametz because of those alien elements it contains. We consume only matzah because it only retains just the essential ingredients of bread.
The antidote to the tokhaḥah is the reduction of those alien elements from our personalities and communities. In restoring our essential selves, we ultimately also revive our joy in His service.