It’s hard to believe that in a few weeks we will be begin the fall holidays with the celebration of Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. While we often think of this season as a time of solemn observance to be approached with awe and reverence, the High Holy Days are truly festive days, as well. On these holidays, we celebrate God’s presence in our lives and the opportunity that presence offers us to be better people.
The High Holy Days are a time to look into our souls. We come before God and measure our lives. Trusting that our God is a merciful God who reads our hearts, we believe that our judgment rests not on our deeds but on our souls, not on our actions over the past twelve months but on our responses to the choices we have made, the words we have said, and the deeds we have done. We believe that forgiveness is available to us if we are receptive to it. We need to ask ourselves if we are willing to change for the better and to continue striving to tighten our bonds with our family, our community, our world and our God.
It is particularly important during this season, when most Jews seek out the opportunity to come to synagogue to worship, that we, as a people, take to heart the Psalmist’s exhortation to come rejoicing before God (Psalm 100:2). How can we take advantage of the promise of forgiveness and rebirth if we do not accept this opportunity cheerfully and with a sense of optimism? If we enter the synagogue out of a sense of obligation, with a feeling of being burdened, and without any trust in the process, how can we hope for self-improvement?
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, directs us to rejoice as a way of honoring God’s presence. Rejoicing is the crowning experience of our encounter with God. The portion discusses the offering of the first fruits of the season. We are not only commanded to go annually to the Temple to present a basket of the first fruits to the priest (Deuteronomy 26:1-2) and to recite a creedal statement (well known to us today because it forms the heart of the Passover Haggadah) (26:3-10), but we are also commanded to rejoice in all the good that our Eternal God has given us (26:11). It is not enough to come to the sanctuary and go through the ritual motions; we also are instructed to rejoice and to celebrate our heritage with the entire community, including the poor and the needy.
This week’s portion also lists the brutal curses that will befall us, the Jewish people, if we prove disloyal to God and to God’s covenant with us. The details of these horrible curses are particularly disturbing in light of our century’s history of genocide, ethnic cleansing and warfare, but the thrust of this section is that if we turn away from God, God will turn away from us. God will put aside his rule over us and allow us to fall victim to cruel human rule.
But what does “turn away from God” mean in this context? In general terms, Israel’s refusal to listen to God and to observe all God’s commandments brings on the curses, just as Israel’s willingness to listen to God and to observe the commandments evokes the blessings.
The more important lesson of this week’s portion, though, is that loyalty to God is not so much a series of observances but a way of being — continually celebrating God’s presence in our lives through appreciation of the good in our lives, which specifically includes, according to Deuteronomy, whatever material prosperity God enables us to achieve — and sharing that sense of joy with others. So long as we joyously and cheerfully serve God, we will continue to be blessed with God’s bounty. But when we cease rejoicing, our blessings will turn to curses and we will no longer be servants of God but slaves to foreign masters (28:47-48). Today, while we might not be comfortable with Deuteronomy’s focus on material blessings and curses, we know that a joyous and positive attitude towards life and its gifts, both tangible and intangible, brings spiritual rewards. Our sages of old restated this principle pointedly and succinctly when they wrote, “Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).