A few weeks ago, in studying Parashat R'eih, I noted that the Torah gives us a great gift of joy—a command to celebrate with one's entire household—tucked into a long passage replete with warnings of failures and curses literally shouted from the mountaintops. This week, in Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8), our tradition tells us that joy now takes center stage from the very first word:
"When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go down to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name." (Deuteronomy 26:1-2)
Wait—what's so joyous about this? According to an early Midrashic tradition, everything:
"R. Samuel b. Nahman came and drew a distinction: wherever wayyehi is stated, it denotes trouble; we-hayah denotes joy." (B'reishit Rabbah 42:3)
That is, when the Torah introduces a recap of the past with the Hebrew phrase va-y'hi, "And it came to pass," it's reminding us of something bad or tragic. But when it previews the future with v'hayah, "And it shall come to pass," it's promising us something good. The Torah is taking the same root word—the verb to be—and using it in two subtly different ways that denote past vs. future. But Rabbi Samuel, a third-century Sage of the Land of Israel, is certain that the subtle distinction carries great significance. He gives a host of examples from the prophetic books of Zechariah, Isaiah, and Joel, each introduced with v'hayah, promising the joy of future redemption for Israel.
Rabbi Chaim ben Attar of Morocco, whose 18th-century commentary bore the name Or HaHayim (Light of Life), builds on this midrashic tradition to teach:
"When [Torah] says 'And it shall be, when you have come into the land,' . . . The word for 'and it shall be,' ve-haya, is taken by our Sages to denote joy. This teaches us that our greatest joy is to live in Eretz Israel, as in the verse (Ps. 126:2), 'then our mouths were filled with laughter."1
So here we have it: The very act of setting foot in the Land of Israel—as the people are about to do for the first time—is a great joy in and of itself. Yes, obligations come with that gift, and Moses goes on to enumerate many of them in this parashah. But they too are based on joy: "You shall enjoy, together with the [family of the] Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household" (Deuteronomy 26:11).
It makes sense, so late into his soliloquy, for Moses to emphasize the joys that spring from such responsibilities; this is, after all, the essence of mitzvah and the foundation of the nation's sustained life in the Land. But Moses knows from experience that over time the people will forget that this joy is a gift from God and not something they have created for themselves. They will take the gift for granted or sink under the weight of its responsibilities. The thrill of finally setting that first foot into the Land will wear off, and they will exchange the joy of we-hayah for the tedium of wayyehi.
And so Moses once again calls on the people: "The Eternal your God commands you this day [hayom hazeh] to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul" (Deuteronomy 26:16). As Rashi teaches: "They should always seem as new to you as on the day you were first commanded to observe them."
Torah teaches us that every day—every event, every encounter—holds the capacity to be a moment of v'hayah, of joy and newness and amazement and inspiration, if we open ourselves to it. Every day can be hayom hazeh. It may be as momentous as that first step off the plane in Israel; or it may be as commonplace as that first step out the front door in the morning. What shall come to pass is what we make of it today, spinning potential into reality.
1. Or Ha-Hayim, quoted in Torah Gems Volume III: Bamidbar/Devarim, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, Ltd.), p. 281
Within the Torah portion Ki Tavo there is a list of blessings and then curses that may fall upon one depending on her or his actions. According to the Torah these are given out by God. But for those whose theology does not warrant this belief, there is another way to look at the curses and blessings. When you look at them more closely you'll notice that the curses are given by our actions toward others, while the blessings are given by the things we create.
We typically think of curses as things that happen to us by an outside force, but the Torah suggests that curses are things we bring upon ourselves as a result of the harmful things we do to others. "Cursed be the one who insults his father or mother . . . who removes his neighbors' landmark . . . who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow . . ." (Deuteronomy 27:17-19). Being cursed is what happens to our place in the family, to our standing in the community, to our reputation.
On the other hand, we often think of blessings as things that are given to us. But in fact, blessings are based upon that which we produce ourselves. "Blessed shall you be in the city and . . . in the country. . . . Blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil . . . your basket and your kneading bowl" (Deuteronomy 28:3-5). The things we ourselves create in this world produce the blessings we receive in life. And when we are no longer here, the blessings are those things we leave as a legacy. "May her memory be a blessing," is what we say at a funeral or when we recite the Mourner's Kaddish.
Life can be filled with blessings and curses that come to us in many ways. The Torah portion is simply reminding us that the ways we act, the choices we make, and the ways we treat others do matter a lot in determining which we will experience.
Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,508–1,537; Revised Edition, pp. 1,347–1,367;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,191–1,216