HEY, LOOK ME OVER
Rabbi David Walk
Our system of weekly Torah readings didn't assume its present universally accepted format until a bit over a thousand years ago, but certain details go back many centuries more. Already in the period of the Mishneh there was a custom to read the list of blessings and curses at the end of the book of Leviticus before Shavuot. There was a parallel practice concerning the longer list of rewards and punishments in this week's parsha that they are to be read before Rosh Hashanah. This, of course, makes sense. It's seems like a great idea to publicly declare, 'And it will be if you obey the Lord, your God, to observe to fulfill all His commandments which I command you this day, the Lord, your God, will place you supreme above all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 28:1),' or, conversely, 'And it will be, if you do not obey the Lord, your God, to observe to fulfill all His commandments and statutes which I am commanding you this day, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you (verse 15),' as part of our preparation for our Yom Hadin (Day of Judgment). However, this year I'd like to suggest another verse in our parsha, which is a great lead in to Rosh Hashanah.
Earlier in the reading we have the mitzvah of vidui ma'aser, the declaration about tithes. This statement is about the second one tenth (because of previously taken priestly and Levitical gifts, it's actually 8.82% of the harvest, if my math is correct) taken from the farmers' produce (the first tithe is given to the Levi) which must be consumed in Jerusalem. This happens in the first, second, fourth and fifth years of every seven year shmitta cycle. In the third and sixth year this second tithe is given to the poor. In our parsha we have the text of what must be recited when all of this produce has been appropriately disposed of. The farmer must declare: I have removed the holy portion from the house, and I have also given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, according to all Your commandment that You commanded me; I have not transgressed Your commandments, nor have I forgotten them. I did not eat any of the second tithe while in mourning, nor did I consume any of it while unclean; neither did I use any of it for the dead. I obeyed the Lord, my God; I did according to all that You commanded me (Deuteronomy 26:13-14). But then comes the totally unexpected announcement, almost a challenge to God: Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey (verse 15). It's this statement which must be analyzed.
That expression 'look down', which sounds like a quote from Les Miz, is hashkifa. What's fascinating about the quote is that this term hashkifa, is always associated with negative situations. However, in our verse the farmer is asking God to look him over. Being under God's microscope is usually very scary. The Mishna in Rosh Hashana (1:2) states that on the Day of Judgment "All creatures pass before God like Bnei Maron." The Talmud (Rosh Hashana 18a) explains that Bnei Maron can mean like counting sheep, or like wayfarers climbing the narrow pass of Beit Choron or like soldiers of King David marching off to war. According to all those interpretations, we're petrified at the prospect of being under the scrutiny of God every Rosh Hashanah. Then why are those farmers asking for God's attention?
To understand this, I think, that we have to look at the statement our farmer declares. He claims that he gave to the needy that which was required and that the produce he ate himself, was consumed with the proper attitude. Our usual trepidation about God's scrutiny is that even if we performed the mitzvah, we may not have fulfilled it adequately. Often our mitzvoth are done by rote or, worse, for ulterior motives, like honor or personal gain. But not this one. We did this mitzvah either for the disadvantaged or the greater glory of Jerusalem.
Now, perhaps, we can understand the verse. Our farmer asks God to look down from the Divine abode, called mo'ano, in the upper reaches of heaven, because his mitzvah caused simchah, joy. Mitzvoth of joy go to the highest realms of heaven. And when you look back at verse 11 you'll notice that this mitzvah gave simcha. This root, simcha, appears four times in the first four books of the Torah, but twelves times here in Deuteronomy, most of those instances dealing with sharing and going to Jerusalem ('the place which God will choose'). Simcha cannot be achieved alone; it requires companionship. And is, perhaps, the highest goal within Judaism. Later in our parsha we have the long and dismal catalogue of curses for noncompliance with Torah law, and that list culminates with the following unexpected conclusion, these disasters befall us, 'because you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart (28:47).' Wow! We suffer because we didn't rejoice. That's a great topic for another article, but here we can say that we relish God's inspection when we spread joy with our mitzvoth.
This analysis explains a famous custom. When we recite sheva brachot for newlyweds, we add into the introduction to birchat hamazon (grace) the expression she'hasimcha b'mo'ano (that the joy is in God's abode). When we share joy with others, as with the couple, God participates in the joy, and this gladness reaches the highest levels of heaven. Therefore when we are sharing happiness, we really want God to pay attention. It's like the song says. 'Hey, look me over…Look out world, here I come,' because I'm doing God's favorite pastime: Spreading Joy! May we find abundant opportunities for simcha!