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Home » Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo: The Joy Imperative

Submitted by on August 20, 2021 – 2:17 pmNo Comment | 949 views

Joy is an imperative in the Jewish tradition. In describing the terrible calamities in store for our people if we turn from G-d, the Torah says it will occur, “because you did not serve G-d, your G-d, with happiness and gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything.”[1]

In Hebrew, the word for because is ki. The word used in this verse is tachat, which in this context means in place of or in substitution of. The ordinary way to understand this passage is that rather (in the place of) serving G-d joyfully out of abundance, you will serve him while suffering.

Yet, the famed Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria explained that the word tachat in this passage is to be understood as because.

A Complete Existence
He explained that every Jew must fulfill every Mtizvah. There are 248 positive Mitzvot and 365 negative Mitzvot. Similarly, the human body has 248 organs and 365 sinews. Just as a body is incomplete when it lacks organs or sinews, so is our soul incomplete if it lacks a Mitzvah. We must, therefore, endeavor to fulfill every Mitzvah during the course of our lives.

He then went on to explain that fulfilling the Mitzvot is not enough. A Mitzvah is only complete when it is fulfilled with joy. A joyless Mitzvah is a broken Mitzvah and as a limb is not complete if it is broken, so it is with a Mitzvah. To ensure that our Mitzvot are complete, we must perform them with joy. He, therefore, maintains that the punishments in our Torah portion are not for failing to perform the Mitzvot. They are for failing to perform them with joy.[2]

Internal Joy
Our sages wrote something similar in the Talmud. “G-d dwells not in an atmosphere of sadness, indolence, hilarity, frivolity, idle conversation, or idle chatter, but in one permeated with the joy of a Mitzvah:[3] This tells us that the joy demanded by Judaism is not a frivolous hilarity, it is an internal joy that originates deep inside our soul. What kind of joy is this?

King Solomon wrote, “G-d made humans upright, but they sought many intrigues.”[4] We are created with a heavenly soul and dispatched to earth to bring G-d’s holiness to earth. So long as we remain true to our identity and mission, we can imbue the world with holiness.

But earth is an intriguing place, and it is easy to be blinded by its many comforts and pleasures. When that happens, we lose sight of our holy soul and our connection to G-d. We become more comfortable on the beach than in the synagogue, at a barbecue than a Torah class, playing than praying. Our soul becomes twisted by earth’s many intrigues.

The Psalmist wrote, “The upright of heart, are joyful.”[5] So long as our hearts and souls are upright as G-d formed them, remembering that we are heavenly beings dispatched to earth for a G-dly mission, we can experience true joy. When our hearts and souls become enmeshed in and twisted by earthly intrigues, joy eludes us. We can have hilarity, but not inner joy.[6]

Inner joy comes from internal freedom. Knowing that we are internally synchronized with our deepest roots, brings us inner joy. Once there is an obstruction that obfuscates and blocks our path, we grow confused. Are we inside looking out, outside looking in, or are we perhaps outsiders who don’t even know how to look in?

Not knowing the answer blocks our path to inner joy. We don’t know who we are. We feel inconsistent. Twisted. We can’t put our finger on it, but something feels internally wrong. No matter how luxurious our home, how pleasant our day, how comfortable our surroundings are, we feel discontent because we are not in synch. We are not holistic.

The Unlockable Force
This is why Jewish mystics wrote that anything can be accomplished with joy. Even the greatest obstacles cannot block the path of inner joy. Outer joy is not in synch with our deepest selves and can be thrown off track. If someone offends us, attacks us, or steals from us, it puts a damper on frivolity. But the joy that stems from our deepest self is impervious to obstruction.

Another difference between inner and outer joy is that inner joy is serene, refined, and loving. Outer joy can be course, blusterous, and offensive. It can lead to actions that we might not have otherwise contemplated. It can lead to errors of judgment in both deeds and words. Not so inner joy. It stems from a good and holy place and is therefore loving and serene.[7]

In other words, vacuous, raucous, outer joy conceals our true selves; it changes us and causes us to behave differently. Inner joy lifts us up and reveals our true selves. We, therefore, discover abilities, sensibilities, and emotions, that we never knew we had.

When we perform a Mitzvah with inner joy, with an upright heart and a connected soul, our connection with G-d is holistic. It pervades every aspect of our being and results in a sense of ecstasy. When a Mitzvah is performed out of sadness, indolence, hilarity, or frivolity, it is broken. It is rooted in ego, not holiness. We do it to serve ourselves, not G-d.

This is why the Talmud maintains that G-d is only present in the (inner) joy of a Mitzvah.

The Glimpse
While pure inner joy is rare for most people, anyone can achieve a taste of it. Every time we do something good for someone, every time we overcome temptation and do what is right even at a personal cost, we feel good about ourselves. This good inner feeling is the encounter with our deepest selves. For the moment we catch a glimpse of being upright, internally consistent, and fully in synch.

If, on the other hand, we do something rotten or selfish, we feel unhappy with ourselves. We are feeling the twisting of our internal consistency. No one needs to tell us that we are off our game. We know it simply by how we feel.

As we prepare for a new year, let’s try to achieve glimpses of inner joy as often as we can.


[1] Deuteronomy 28:47.

[2] Introduction to Shaat Hamitzvos as elucidated by Rabbi Steinzaltz’s commentary on Tanya 26.

[3] Talmud, Shabbat 30b.

[4] Ecclesiastics 7:29.

[5] Psalms 97:11.

[6] Likutei Moharan, 7a.

[7] It can be expressed in vigorous dance, but one can sense an inner serenity in the dance. It is soulful and noble, not crass and frivolous.