A tremendous lesson challenges us in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. Among the most studied passages in Devarim/Deuteronomy is the lengthy passages in which Moshe describes the blessings that will abound for the Jewish people when we follow God’s mitzvot (commandments) as well as the horrific results of acting improperly. Problems like confusion, anxiety, depression, ignorance, starvation – and worse – are listed as the outcome of godless living.
What is MOST noteworthy, however, is the reason emphasized by the Torah for such undesirable consequences. These ‘curses’ unfold when “You did not serve the Lord your God with joy and goodness of heart” (Deut. 28:47).
Joy….Goodness of heart…since the consequences of NOT having these two attitudes are pretty severe, perhaps we’d best take another look at what they mean.
JOY is not synonymous with happiness. JOY is a state of mind and an orientation of the heart. It is a settled state of contentment,inner peace and confidence in the love of God. By contrast, happiness comes and goes; it is fleeting and temporary. JOY abides independent of external circumstances.
Oxford’s dictionary defines joy as, ” A vivid emotion of pleasure arising from a sense of well-being.” Joy is found in the quiet of a life going well, but equally in a life full of turmoil and even pain, when the fleeting sense of happiness may be a vague memory. Living joyfully requires minor changes at the very center of our inner person, rather than waiting for major changes in the external aspects of our life. Since God is eternal and He has assured us in Torah and through the Prophets that His love is abiding, abundant and unconditional, inner joy is completely possible. It is a matter of deciding and embracing that the solid foundation for our life is faith and trust in the Holy One of Israel. Once that is the bedrock upon which we build our life, JOY (and the inner peace that comes with it) becomes a permanent state of heart, even in the worst of external times.
This is not to say that we become utterly “unflappable”. Hardly. Daily life is, as a friend of mine once said, “just so daily” and it serves us sweet moments along with sour ones. We may not have much happiness in the sour moments, but our joy in the overall goodness and providence of Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) remains unshaken.
“..and in goodness of heart…” We are all familiar with the phrase “out of the goodness of his heart…” which indicates a person whose general mode of behavior is characterized by kindness. Jewish teaching holds Chesed (Kindness) in very high esteem and it is taught as a major character trait to be developed in children and adults alike. In his book, KINDNESS, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin writes, “Kindness is one of the pillars of the world. Every act of kindness elevates your character and makes you a kinder person. A kind person is the agent of the Creator Himself.”
“Kind words,” said Mother Teresa, “are short and easy to speak, but their echoes are endless.”
It is profoundly significant that the lack of these two qualities — JOY and GOODNESS OF HEART (kindness) — are the given reasons for curses to come into our lives as opposed to blessings. Just that thought should give us pause…and more pause.
In Tune with Torah this week = the new Hebrew year is now a mere two weeks away. As we approach the latter part of the month of Elul, this month of introspection and repentance, the two character traits highlighted in this week’s Torah portion demand our attention. Is joy an established foundation in our innermost souls? Does the joy of the Lord sustain us in difficult times? What is our kindness quotient? Do we labor at kindness in thought, word and deed? Do we need any more important motivation than to work at these two character traits as we read this week’s Torah protion?