Friday, August 31, 2007

Dangerous Blessings

As we approach the end of the Torah, the Jews are encamped on the borders of Israel gearing up for a dangerous invasion. A nation of escaped slaves, they face trained armies entrenched in fortified, defensive positions. The report of the spies echoes in their minds. Without a miracle, they are doomed.

But the prophet Moshe doesn’t hear the noise of impending war. He doesn’t see the enemy. His gaze reaches beyond. He sees the future.

A land of Israel at peace, blessed with fertility. Fields of wheat. Baskets of grapes, pomegranates, figs. And on a well-worn country path, a Jewish farmer is carrying his first fruits to Jerusalem, paying homage to the source of all this goodness.

When the farmer arrives at the Holy Temple, he expresses his gratitude in no uncertain terms. It would be fruitful (forgive the pun) to quote his declaration in full:

My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us. We cried out to G-d, Lord of our ancestors, and G-d heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress. G-d then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that G-d has given me.

Devarim 26:5-10

Apparently, a mere “thank you” doesn’t cut it. It would be insufficient to merely thank G-d for making fruit grow. For an expression of gratitude to be whole, it requires a broader perspective. Recalling the divine miracles that brought the nation to Israel in the first place inspires the Jewish farmer to a more heartfelt expression of his feelings. This is why he presents a synopsis of Jewish history when all he really wants to do is thank G-d for figs.

Moshe ends this section with an additional point, a point on which the entire parsha turns:

You… shall thus rejoice in all the good that G-d your Lord has granted you and your family.

Devarim 26:11

That there is an obligation to express gratitude is not surprising. But what does rejoicing have to do with it?

It would seem that joy is an essential by-product of this mitzvah. G-d wants us to enjoy His blessings and expressing gratitude to God enables and inspires a deeper enjoyment of life. The Talmud, however, understands things a little differently.

From here we learn that the declaration over the first fruits may only be recited in a season of joy. [It can be said anytime] from the holiday of Shavuot until the holiday of Sukkot – a time when people are gathering in their produce, fruits, wine and oil. After Sukkot, [farmers] bring their first fruits [to the Temple] but do not recite this declaration (Pesachim 36b).

Rashi ad loc.

In other words, the Torah is not saying that this declaration brings joy, but rather the reverse – it can only be said when people are happy. When are Jews happy? The Talmud identifies “happy time” as being from Shavuot to Sukkot, but this is a shocking statement. The months of Tammuz and Av are between Shavuot and Sukkot! The breaking of the Tablets, the Sin of the Spies, the destruction of the two Temples – all the worst tragedies of our history occurred during these months. Moreover, this period also includes Elul and Tishrei, i.e. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a happy time? This is the scariest part of the Jewish year!

Apparently, we are not talking here about happiness in a religious sense. It may not be the happiest time on the calendar, but it is the time when farmers cash in on all their hard work. They are comfortable financially – and that makes people forget about God (cf. 8:12-14). That is why this is the time for a declaration of gratitude. It keeps farmers from taking the land of Israel for granted, a particularly important thing to do from Tammuz to Tishrei.

The parsha might begin with a utopian view of the future, but the vision quickly turns dark. Very dark.

If you do not obey G-d your Lord and do not carefully keep all His commandments and decrees as I am prescribing them for you today, then all these curses will come to bear upon you.
Cursed will you be in the city and cursed in the field.
Cursed will be your food basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed will be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your land, the calves of your herd and the lambs of your flock…

Devarim 28:15-18

That is only the beginning. Some of the most difficult reading in all of Scripture appears in this week’s parsha. Moshe tells the people what will befall them if they fail to observe the mitzvot of the Torah and the prophecies are horrifically graphic. I will not recount them here. Suffice it to say that the parsha reads like a hybrid of Josephus’ record of the Temple’s destruction, a history of the Spanish Inquisition, and a Holocaust memoir – verse after verse, it is all sadly familiar to students of Jewish history. Custom mandates that this section of the parsha be read quickly and in a soft voice.

In the midst of it all, we find this revealing verse:

[These curses] will be a sign and proof to you and your children forever. When you had plenty of everything, you did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart.

Devarim 28:47-48

That is the usual translation, but literally, it reads like this:
…You did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart because you had plenty of everything.
Amazing! G-d’s blessings have become a curse! Owning plenty of everything and enjoying all of life’s pleasures can sink man into materialism, depravity and ultimately depression, carrying him far from G-d and earning him harsh retribution. But when the people are righteous, G-d bestows His blessings of abundance and wealth (cf. 28:1-12). How do we escape this destructive cycle?

The answer is gratitude. If we maintain consciousness of the Source of Blessings through complete and wholehearted expressions of gratitude, we can then rejoice in all the good that God grants us without fear of becoming self-centered pleasure seekers. It turns out that the mitzvah at the beginning of the parsha is the antidote for all that follows.

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