Rabbi Tuvia Bolton – Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim – Kfar Chabad Israel
The Baal Shem Tov taught that G-d must be served with joy, and that every sentence of the Torah can teach us a lesson in joy. Therefore, he was very opposed to Rabbis that made “fire and brimstone” sermons, especially in the month of Elul, in order to frighten Jews into doing the Commandments.
But this week’s section (always read in the month of Elul) contains 98 terrible curses for those who disobey G-d’s will. What has that got to do with joy?
Also, this week’s section comes out next to “Selichot” (Selichot are very serious “forgiveness” prayers that are said at the end of the month of Elul, just before Rosh Hashanah. The prayers of the first day are the most dramatic) and the birthdays (18th of Ellul) of both the Baal Shem Tov and the first Rebbe of Chabad (the author of the Tanya) Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Laidi. Is there a connection?
Here are three stories to help us understand all this:
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Braditchiv was renowned as a holy man, a great scholar, and a very important leader in the Chassidic movement.
But just after his wedding when he was still young and unknown, his father-in-law, a very influential non-Chassidic Rabbi, invited him to lead the prayers in his huge Synagogue on the first night of “Selichot” to show his congregants how normal and talented his son-in-law was.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak entered the packed Synagogue, walked past the hundreds of somber faces directly to the podium at the front of the room, wrapped himself in the large white Tallis (prayer Shawl), stood for a minute and prepared himself to sing out the awesome opening words “ASHREI YOSHVEI BAISEHCHAW!”
But he didn’t.
He didn’t say anything. He just stood there looking into the air. Another terrible silent minute passed and then another. The crowd began to buzz
with comments and speculations.
Suddenly he took off the Tallis, laid it back on the podium, smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said in a rather loud voice.
“Listen, if you can learn so well and you can pray so well…So you say Selichot!!!!”
And then he turned and took a seat in the crowd.
His embarrassed father-in-law immediately ran to the podium and began the prayers.
After the services, when everyone had left the Synagogue and they were alone, Rav Levi Yitzchak explained what happened to his irate and bewildered Father-in-law.
“Please don’t be angry with me,” he said. “It wasn’t my fault. I stood to
pray and suddenly I heard a voice deep inside me saying, first mockingly:
“Ahhh the Great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Breditchev, you are so wonderful!! You are the greatest!!”
Then accusingly: “You are a big egotist. How have you the gall to lead such an important prayer!? Who do you think you are?!
I recognized that voice well, it was my evil impulse (selfish ego). I’ve been working for years to refine my motives and myself, and I thought I got rid of it, but I guess I was wrong.
Leave me alone! I said. Okay, I’m not perfect; maybe I have ulterior motives too. But what about all the Torah I’ve learnt? That was purely for HaShem! And what of all the hours I’ve spent in prayer. That was selfless, wasn’t it?! In the merit of my Torah and my Prayer I order you to leave me alone!!
Aha! That’s what you think! it answered. All the time I was right there learning and praying with you, telling you how great you are and what a big reward you’ll get in this world and the world to come.
So I thought for a while and said, Nu! You know what? If you know how to learn so well and to pray so well…So YOU say Slichot!!”
Here is a second, even stranger, story.
In a certain village lived an old, rich, Jewish couple that where arrogant and stingy. They were religious, but that didn’t seem to improve their personalities. In fact the opposite was true, they felt that now that they were observant they were protected from above as well as below. Of course everyone was afraid to say a word to them, and they continued acting like little dictators.
It so happened that one of the more famous followers of the first Rebbe of Chabad (Rabbi Shneur Zalman), called Rabbi Shmuel Munkis, heard about them and decided to take action.
Each day before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) Jews say a series of prayers called Selichot. The first of which is at midnight after the last Shabbos of the year.
Rabbi Munkis traveled to their town after that Shabbos, and arrived at their house about an hour before this first Slichot prayer. He knocked on the door, and introduced himself as a very famous and learned Rabbi who was visiting their town, and heard that only they were worthy of his presence.
He was indeed a very distinguished person, and he really looked like it dressed in his best Shabbos garments. So inflated with pride, they begged him to enter.
He majestically accepted their offer, and once inside he royally announced, “Show me my room, I would like to rest”.
They rushed to escort him to their special guest room. He pretended to lie down to sleep and told them to close the door.
An hour later midnight was approaching, and when they saw that he wasn’t coming out for Slichot they cautiously knocked at the door of their honored quest.
“Ehhh!!” he yelled out from inside. “You’re bothering me, stop bothering me!! Let me sleep!”
They were puzzled. “He is probably very tired from the road” said the husband. “It could be that he is a bit ill as well” added his wife knowingly. “He looked a bit pale, poor man. He probably is constantly busy with very important things”.
She knocked again and called out in a louder voice, “Rabbi. Please excuse us but in just a few minutes will begin Selichot; we don’t want you to miss Selichot! Excuse us please honorable great Rabbi! Please get up for Selichot.”
“Ehhh?” He yelled out again as he opened the door and poked his head out squinting his eyes. “What are Selichot? Why are you bothering me with your nonsense! Why don’t you let me sleep!?”
The astonished couple looked first at one another then gazed in open-mouthed disbelief at their guest.
“Fooya!!” Shouted the woman. “What kind of Rabbi are you that doesn’t know what Selichot are! Fooya!! Shame on you!!” She was a bit surprised at herself for her sudden outburst, but after a second thought she realized how very justified she was.
“Nu? Said Rav Shmuel, his head still sticking out of the door. “Maybe you tell me then! What are Selichot?”
Now it was her husband’s turn to get angry. “You call yourself a Rabbi ehh?! Feh! Why you don’t even know what Slichot are? Fooya! Feh!!”
“Nu? So tell me?” repeated Rav Shmuel.
“Why, Selichot are prayers we say to G-d asking that He give us a good year” said the man indignantly. “That our cows should give milk, chickens should give eggs, that we make money!”
His wife stood with hands on her hips, staring alternately at him and then at the Rabbi shaking her head in agreement.
“WHAT!!??” Shouted the Rabbi as he opened the door revealing that he had never even lain in the bed. “Grown adults waking at midnight to pray to the King of the Universe for eggs and milk! Feh!!”
Suddenly they realized that he was right, how selfish they had been! Their whole lives they had only thought about how G-d could serve them and never about serving G-d.
This answers our questions. Our Parsha explains that the reason for all the curses is “Because you didn’t serve G-d with joy” (28:47).
Joy means feeling that you are worthwhile and what you are doing is important. When there is joy, even the most difficult of tasks is possible. But when it is lacking, everything is a burden.
There is no more difficult or important task than serving the King of the Universe; it requires overcoming many obstacles both from internally and externally. Serving G-d means not only learning Torah and doing His commandments, but also refining one’s personality and loving your fellow< man, and without joy it is impossible (hence the curses).
And that is the point of these two stories: Rabbi Levi Yizchak is an example of refining oneself uncompromisingly through joy, and Rabbi Munkis of loving others uncompromisingly through joy.
That explains how to derive joy from reading the 98 curses.
The reason that G-d curses only the Jews so prolifically, is to remind us of their special purpose and deep connection to Him; they are called sons, chosen, holy, special. Therefore G-d expects a lot from them and if they let him down they anger Him.
In other words, these curses remind us how WORTHWHILE and IMPORTANT we are, and that should bring us to joy.
But why do they have to be written as curses? Why not blessings?
The answer is that a curse in its source is higher than any blessing we can understand.
The story is told that the First Rebbe of Chabad (whose birthday is on the 18th Ellul) used to be the one to read the Torah aloud in the Congregation every Shabbos. It so happened that one Shabbos, (this week’s section Ki Tavo) he wasn’t in town and someone else read.
The Rebbe’s son, who was less than thirteen years old at the time, fainted when the reader got to the curses and was ill for several weeks thereafter.
Later he explained why. “It was the first time I ever heard the curses, when my father read I didn’t hear curses.”
In other words the job and the NATURE of the Rebbe (and every Rebbe) was to reveal the true holy, joyous source of everything. Especially the curses. Because a curse transformed to blessing is the highest type of blessing.
May G-d send the Moshiach and transform all the curses we see all around us and that we have been experiencing for the last 2,000 years into blessings for a good, healthy, happy, sweet New Year.