Ki Tavo: An Abundance of All Things
Dr. Hannah Hashkes is a third year fellow in the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL) at Midreshet Lindenbaum
Parashat Ki Tavo sets an opposition between gratitude and loyalty to the Torah on the one hand and ungratefulness and neglect on the other hand.
The Parasha begins with the mitzvot of Bikurim and Ma’aser, and spells out the prayer that accompanies their presentation. מקרא ביכורים emphasizes God’s directing hand in Israel’s arrival at freedom and bounty, while the prayer that follows completion of Ma’aser acknowledges the bond with Hashem through the mitzvot. But the following parts of the Parasha, the ceremony of Ebal and Grizim and the passage of rebuke, teach that prosperity that is the result of gratitude and loyalty is lost when Israel does not recognize to whom they owe it.
One of the noted failures in of the rebuke passage is the failure to serve Hashem “בשמחה” ‘, “in joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, by reason of the abundance of all things” (28:47). This verse chimes the verse following the Bikurim prayer for its use of the same term, “ושמחת” – – you should “rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God has given you”(26: 11), This repetition suggests that the difference between prosperity and destruction is a spiritual mood, joy in Hashem’s sovereignty and fulfilling commandments with enthusiasm.
In his book Meshekh Hokhma, Rabbi Meir Simha Hacohen of Dvinsk explains the nature of this spiritual mood. The commandment “ושמחת” is taught by referring Ben Zoma’s teaching in Avot (4:1): a happy person is one who is content with his given lot. The failure to rejoice in the service of God is a distorted response to having it all, “מרוב כל”. When prosperity results in neglecting to remember the source of abundance, prosperity will end.
Rabbi Meir Simha Hacohen adds an innovative understanding of Israel’s obligation of gratitude. He was a prominent Eastern European rabbi of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Jewish life as he knew it, could not have matched the prosperity described in the Bikurim section nor the harmonious existence of mount Grizim’s blessings. His world was rooted in the darkness of galut, in decades fraught with wars, prosecution, and growing assimilation. And yet, to his understanding there has been a reason for the spiritual stance of joy, because “abundance of all things” also means the abundance of knowledge. Abundance of knowledge in modern times makes life is much easier than in the past. However, it is not only because knowledge makes our material life easier, it is also owing to the common belief in God and disappearance of idolatry. He mentions the insurmountable task that Avraham had in teaching the existence of God as well as the effort of our forefather’s in Egypt to remain holy in an idolatrous empire. But today we can rejoice in abundance of the world’s “just and erudite opinions that shine in the divine intellect”.
Today, a century later, it seems as if the world has turned around completely. Our material life is that of “abundance of all things” but the mounting knowledge and the cultural mood pose great challenges to the continued loyalty to Hashem. We find ourselves again in the situation of Avraham, combating the doubt and ridicule of the commitment to the Torah. We are challenged by the pluralism of ideas that denies any truth or common goals for mankind. We are challenged by radical individualism that denies that a person can have a moral or religious obligation based upon communal commitments; we are challenged by a growing sense of human control of our environment denying dependence on the creator of the world.
Although he interpreted his generation’s challenges differently, the Meshekh Hokhma teaches us how to avoid a distorted response. We should rejoice in this knowledge, find Hashem’s hand in it, and use it to serve Hashem with thankfulness for the gifts it brings us. He teaches us that similar to our forefathers in Egypt, we must invest many efforts in our spiritual state, and let our joy in the service of God light the paths surrounding us. Similarly to Avraham, we are called to make great educational efforts in order to pass to our children and students the gift of a knowledge of God, filling the earth, כמים לים מכסים, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).