Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Ki Tavo 5770/ August 28, 2010

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



“Serve the Lord your G-d in joy and gladness”


Dr. Yael Tzohar


Department of Bible

The passage of curses in this week’s reading, called the Tokheha or "chastisement,"  accuses Israel of being ungrateful (Deut. 28:47-48):

Because you would not over the abundance of everything, you shall have to serve – in hunger and thirst, naked and lacking everything – the enemies whom the Lord will let loose against you.

The plain sense of these verses is that the children of Israel did not serve the Lord when they were living and peace and joy, and therefore they will have to serve their enemies in hunger and hardship.   Read this way, the expression “in joy and gladness” describes the good living conditions that made it possible for the people of Israel to worship the Lord easily.  Rashi interprets:  Over the abundance of everything – while you had all that is good.”  

Maimonides, however, interprets the text differently ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Shofar, Sukkah ve-Lulav, 8.15):

The joy that a person should experience in performing the commandments and in loving the Lord who commanded them – that is a great service; and whoever prevents himself from feeling this joy deserves to pay the price, as it is written:   “Because you would not serve the Lord your G-d in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

According to Maimonides, the expression, “in joy and gladness,” does not describe external living conditions, rather the nature of worshipping the Lord.   The Lord ought to be worshipped in joy and gladness; if not, then one is repaid measure for measure, serving one’s enemies in hardship and deprivation.

Following Maimonides’ understanding, we cite several passages that illustrate the Torah’s blanket instruction to worship the Lord in thanksgiving and gladness.

1.   Numbers 11:1-3:

The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord.  The Lord heard and was incensed:  a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.  The people cried out to Moses.  Moses prayed to the Lord, and the fire died down.  That place was named Taberah, because a fire of the Lord had broken out against them.

Not only every word, but every letter in this passage has received attention.   Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno interprets the letter kaf (= like, as if), which precedes the word 'complaining' (Hebrew kemitonenim) as follows:   As if complaining – about the hardships of the way; not really complaining in their hearts, for they had no worthy reason to complain, but complaining in their words, to be vexing.”

On “bitterly before the Lord (ra be’oznei Hashem, lit. “bad in the ears of the Lord”)” Rashi writes:  “Making a claim that was bad in the ears of the Lord, for they intended that it reach his ears and vex Him.  They said:  Woe unto us, how travel-weary we are; for three days we have not had respite from the hardship of the road.”

The people apparently were complaining about the difficult conditions, but as Rashi and Sforno explain, no specific matter was troubling them, rather they wished to voice complaints and vex the Lord, or, colloquially, one might say gripe.  This situation is reminiscent of a young child wining and complaining when all he wants is to make his parents have pity on him and express their love and affection for him. Nahmanides, however, comments on this text:

It says complaining, for they were speaking out of their misery, as do those who are in pain.   It was displeasing in the eyes of the Lord, for they should have followed Him in joy and gladness for all the beneficence He had shown them, but they acted as if coerced and compelled, complaining and protesting their condition.

It is important to note the terrible wrath of the Holy One, blessed be He, wrath that found expression in fire.  This is a leitmotif, appearing three times in three verses.  The fire burns and consumes, and it only dies down after the people’s outcry and Moses’ prayers.  Even if in the eyes of human parents the behavior of a spoiled child is sometimes accepted as part of the pains of his growing up, the Holy One, blessed be He, was not prepared to accept such behavior from the people of Israel.


2.   Numbers 11:4-35:

In this passage the people complain about the manna, the monotonous food that they received day in and day out.  Instead of turning to Moses politely and asking for a change of menu, the people cry:   “The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat!’” (Num. 11:4-5).  After detailing the wonderful characteristics of manna, the Lord says to Moses (Num. 11:18-20):

And say to the people:  Purify yourselves for tomorrow and you shall eat meat, for you have kept whining before the Lord and saying, “If only we had meat to eat!  Indeed, we were better off in Egypt!”   The Lord will give you meat and you shall eat … until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you.   For you have rejected the Lord who is among you, by whining before Him and saying, “Oh, why did we ever leave Egypt!”

Here, too, it turns out that the manna is not the real crux of the issue, rather their rejection of the Lord and their complaints about the very exodus from Egypt.   Here, too, the Lord’s wrath is kindled over the whining and complaining of the Israelites, and in the end many of them die and are buried.


3.   II Samuel, chapter 6:

Bringing the Ark of the Lord to the City of David is a complex story involving mixed feelings of joy, sadness, anger and fear.  In the course of the joyful, gleeful procession Uzzah, fearing that the ark was about to fall, reached out his hand and touched it.  Immediately, to our great horror, he himself fell dead.  David’s response is remarkable (II Sam. 6:8-10):

David was distressed because the Lord had inflicted a breach upon Uzzah … David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can I let the Ark of the Lord come to me?”  So David would not bring the Ark of the Lord to his place in the City of David; instead, David diverted it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.

It is surprising that the Lord was not angry at David and in no way reproached him.   Perhaps David’s concern for a private individual among his people and his great sorrow over that person’s death were pleasing in the eyes of the Lord.  Be that as it may, David received a divine message:   “The Ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and his whole household.”   The message was that the Ark of the Lord brings plenty and blessing, not death and sorrow.  And thus David understood the message:

It was reported to King David:  “The Lord has blessed Obed-edom’s house and all that belongs to him because of the Ark of the G-d.”  Thereupon David went and brought up the Ark of G-d from the house of Ebed-edom to the City of David, amid rejoicing. (II Sam. 6:12)

David learned that there is no contradiction between strict compliance with the commandments, even an instinctive motion such as Uzzah’s, and rejoicing, religious enthusiasm and abandon.  A religious person is not choked and frozen, even if he is supposed to exercise control over his actions, his speech, and even his thoughts.

Michal, who was unfamiliar with a world in which there is leaping and whirling, could not accept the sight that befell her eyes.  For her, preserving the respectable image of a king could not go hand in hand with behavior expressive of an outburst of joy.   But David concluded that there is no contradiction between joy that breaks social conventions and being king.   Surely when the rejoicing and its expression are for the Lord, it is most honorable to behave in such a manner before G-d.  So he confronted Michal and tried to present his world view to her.

In conclusion, the above sources illustrate that rejoicing in worship of the Lord is not a concomitant addition, but an intrinsic part of worship, for when a person is emotionally involved in performing the will of the Creator, he or she expresses emotional ties to Him and His commandments.