24 Aug PARSHAS KI SAVO: TO HOLD ETERNITY IN THE PALM OF YOUR HAND- CONTRIBUTING YOUR VERSE TO THE PLAY OF LIFE
Every day at lunch time Yankel would open his lunch sandwich and utter the same complaint. “Oh no, peanut butter again!”
One day, after seven years, his co-worker finally loses his patience.
“Why don’t you ask your wife to make you something different, for heaven’s sake?”
“That won’t help”, Yankel replies, “I make the sandwiches myself.”
THE GREEN MITZVAH
One of the most “green” and organic commandments in the Torah is the mitzvah of Bikurim, the “First Fruits,” in this opening of this week’s portion (Ki Savo.)
If you lived in the biblical Land of Israel, and your orchard grew any of the special fruits with which the Land was blessed—grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives or dates—you were commanded by the Torah to select the first-ripened fruits, place them in a basket, bring them to the Holy Temple, and present them to the kohen, the priest, as a gift, A magnificent and exciting ceremony accompanied the performance of this annual tradition The Mishnah in Tractate Bikkurim provides a graphic depiction of what the scene looked like some twenty centuries ago:
How does one separate Bikurim? A person goes down into his field, and sees a fig that has ripened, a cluster of grapes that have ripened, a pomegranate that has matured; he ties them with a string and declares: These are Bikurim!
How does one bring up his Bikurim? All of the farmers living in surrounding villages would gather together in one village, they would sleep in the streets – [essentially this was a massive outdoor festival] — and not enter the homes. At sunrise the appointed attendant would call out, “Let us arise, and ascend to Zion, to the Lord our G-d!”
Throughout the entire voyage they would sing the verse, “I was joyous when they told me, ‘let us go to the house of G-d.’” Before them went the ox, its horns overlaid with gold, and with a wreath of olive leaves on its head. [You see, even the ox leading the way was part of the celebration.] The flute played before them until they came near Jerusalem (2*).
As they neared Jerusalem, they sent messengers to notify the people of Jerusalem of their arrival, and they bedecked and decorated their fruits. The rulers, prefects and treasurers of the Temple went out to welcome them. When they entered the portals of Jerusalem, they began to sing the verse “our legs stood in your gates Jerusalem.” All the craftsmen in Jerusalem rose up for them and greeted them, saying, “Brothers! People of such-and-such a place! Welcome!”
They would parade in Jerusalem, with the flute playing before them, till they arrived at the Temple Mount. At the Temple mount, each of them would place his basket on his shoulder, even King Agrippa [the last Judean king before the destruction of the Temple and the Jewish Commonwealth in 68 CE] would place his basket on his shoulder and enter in as far as the Temple Court [Azarah], and the Levites began singing…
Each farmer, with his basket of fruits on his shoulder in the Temple yard, would tell the kohen: “I declare this day to the Lord, your G-d that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.”
The Kohen would then lift up the basket of fruits, and the farmer would – in a loud and festive voice – utter a moving declaration: “My father [Jacob] was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous.
“And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, G-d of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. Then G-d brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.
“And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
“And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me.”
Then, the kohen returned the basket to the giver. The farmer placed it near the Temple altar, prostrated himself, and left. He spent the night in Jerusalem and then returned home the next day.
WHAT’S THE GEVALD?
We read this description and we can sense the exhilaration and excitement that slowly grows as the farmers gather, and begin making their voyage to Jerusalem. We sense the ecstasy, the celebration, and the sense of camaraderie in the climactic arrival of the Bikurim at the Holy Temple. The rulers, the dignitaries, and even the King, all took part in the festivities. The music did not stop and the energy was electrifying. They even slept together outside. It was a momentous occasion, a scene to behold.
BUT WAS IT REALLY?
A poor farmer, a young lad or an old man, is bringing a few fruits in a modest basket to Jerusalem as a gift to the priest who, working in the Temple, does not make a living on his own and is supported by the community. It is a kind gesture and a fine deed. The farmer is not bringing his entire crop; he is donating just one or two or three fruits (maybe more, maybe less). His donation is not unusual in its generosity. His orchard may in fact produce small and impoverished-looking fruits and even the choicest of them may be a far cry from big and delicious fruits. He basically takes a few figs and clusters and brings them to Jerusalem. Things like this happen millions a times a day in the world: farmers deliver their fruits to homes, shops and markets.
What then warranted such an outstanding welcome? Why the ceremonial thrill, the momentous hype? What created such dramatic excitement? A flute leading them all the way, and the Temple dignitaries coming out to greet them?
What is even more astonishing is the fact that each of these farmers did not merely come and deliver his or her gift to the kohen. No!
Each of them, entered the Holy Temple, the most sacred space in the world, and made a powerful declaration which retold the story of Jewish history till that point. Imagine if once a year when the delivery boy came to bring the fruits of the new season to the local synagogue to be given to the poor (or to be used for the Kiddush or the sisterhood meeting), he would place the box of fruits on his shoulder and pronounce this following declaration with a voice filled with gusto:
“The year was 1775 when The Thirteen Colonies began a rebellion against British rule and proclaimed their independence. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress, still meeting in Philadelphia, declared the independence of ‘the United States of America’ in the ‘Declaration of Independence.’ In it our Founding Fathers wrote: “’When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…”
“And here I am today – James Smith the Third, in this beautiful city, bringing fruits to this special man…”
A bit strange, no?
And yet this is what occurred with each and every basket of fruit being delivered to the Temple. A simple farmer is presenting a basket of fruits to a kohen, and he begins waxing eloquently about the entire story of Jewish history from our Genesis in Egypt till his farming in the Land of Israel!
I WANT YOU!
Yet it is precisely this experience which offers a glimpse into an essential idea of Judaism. A simple farmer delivering a basket of fruits to the Kohen in Jerusalem is an embodiment of the entire narrative of Jewish history; his or her daily struggles and gifts constitute an indispensable note in the grand symphony of the Jewish people. Our global story is comprised of individual hearts, individual baskets, and individual fruits.
It is not the only the momentous, dramatic and earth-shattering experiences which deserve to be noted from a historical point of view.
Rather, when a Jewish farmer works hard all year in his or her field, plowing, sowing, irrigating, supervising, and finally harvesting and reaping; and then this farmer fills a basket of a few simple fruits to give to G-d in the Temple (presented as a gift to the Divine ambassador in the Temple, the kohen)—this, in the paradigm of Judaism, is a momentous event.
“To see the world in a grain of sand, and infinity in the palm of your hand!” William Blake said. To be able to look at a basket held in the palm of a farmer’s hand and see infinity in this very experience – this is at the essence of Judaism!
True, this basket may contain nothing more than a few simple grapes of the type they serve on airplanes (may G-d preserve us.) But these fruits are his. He grew them with his sweat and tears. And when he brings them to Jerusalem, as a gift to the Almighty, we all participate in the celebration. The farmer is called to enter the Holy Temple and make his personal offering to G-d. And when he makes his declaration, he is enjoined to do it with gusto and fervor, while everybody around – including all of the great sages and priests remain silent and listen. Why? Because what matters is not how much you bring, but that it comes from you. It is your heart, your passion, your soul.
“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse,” Walt Whitman wrote. What matters most is not how long or poetic the verse, but that it is YOUR verse. It contains your individual contribution; your truth, your music, your heartstrings.
What ultimately matters, the Torah is teaching us, is not what you are giving and creating in life. Rather, what truly matters is that what you are creating is truly yours. Put yourself into life. I don’t need you to bring large and fancy baskets. All I want is YOUR basket. We want your distinct voice, your own ballad, your unique heartbeat.
Today, Bikurim are gone with the destruction of Temple. What is the closest thing we have left?
The Midrash says (2): “Moses saw that the Temple would eventually be destroyed, and Bikurim aborted, therefore he established Prayer three times a day.” Just as Bikurim are the first and freshest fruit of my harvest, prayer is the first and freshest moment of my day.
But the comparison runs far deeper. On the surface, there is nothing more routine and potentially more boring than the daily prayers. The same prayers day in and day out, the same words, the same boring congregation, the same monotonous rabbi, and the same people sleeping during the sermon.
Comes the Torah and tells us that we can view it in a very different way. Your prayers may be like the fruit basket of an impoverished farmer or like the fruit basket of the wealthy farmer. That does not matter; what matters is that it is yours. When you are real with G-d, when you speak your heart, your truth, your feelings, when you show up with your voice, then all of the angels in all of the worlds become silent to listen to your daily declaration in the Temple.
What matters most is that you speak it in your authentic voice. And then your prayers too, just like Bikurim, become a momentous opportunity.
AN ANGRY LION
The Baal Shem Tov, one of the most profound thinkers in the history of Jewish spirituality (1698-1740), whose birthday is celebrated on the 18th of Elul, once shared this following allegorical story.
Once upon a time, says the Baal Shem Tov, the lion grew furious with all of the other jungle animals. Since the lion is “the king of animal life,” and is most powerful and dominant, his ire evoked deep fright in the hearts of the other animals.
“What should we do?” murmured all the animals at an emergency meeting.
“If the lion lets out his anger, we are all done.”
“No worries,” came the voice of the fox, known as the wiliest of animals. “In the reservoirs of my brain are stored 300 stories, anecdotes and vignettes. When I present them to the lion, his mood will be transformed.”
A wave of joy rushed through all the animals as they embarked on a march toward the lion’s home in the jungle, where the fox would placate him and restore the friendly relationship between the lion and his subjects.
THE FOX FORGETS
During the journey through the jungle pathways, the fox suddenly turns to one of his animal friends and says, “You know, I forgot 100 of my entertaining stories.”
Rumors of the fox’s lapse of memory spread immediately. Many animals were overtaken by profound trepidation, but soon came the calming voice of Mr. Bear. “No worries,” he said. “Two hundred vignettes of a brilliant fox are more than enough to get that arrogant lion rolling in laughter and delight.
“They will suffice to do the job,” agreed Mr. Wolf. A little while later, as the extraordinarily large entourage of animals was nearing the lion, Mr. Fox suddenly turned to another colleague. “I have forgotten another 100 of my anecdotes,” lamented the fox. “They simply slipped my mind.”
The animals’ fear became stronger, but soon enough came the reassuring voice of Mr. Deer. “No worries,” he proclaimed, “One hundred fox stories will suffice to capture the imagination of our simple king.”
“Yes, 100 jokes will assuage the lion,” agreed Mr. Tiger. A few moments later, all of the hundreds of thousands of animals were at the lion’s den. The lion rose to his full might and glory, casting a fierce gaze at all of his subjects, sending a shiver through their veins.
As the moment of truth arrived, all of the animals looked up with beseeching eyes to their bright representative the fox, to approach the lion and accomplish the great mission of reconciliation. At that very moment, the fox turned to the animals and said, “I am sorry, but I forgot my last 100 stories. I have nothing left to say to the king.”
The animals went into hysteria. “You are a vicious liar,” cried they cried. “You deceived us. What are we to do now?”
“My job,” responded the fox calmly, “was to persuade you to take the journey from your own nests to the lion’s nest. I have accomplished my mission. You are here. Now, let each and every single one of you discover his own voice and rehabilitate his own personal relationship with the king.”
LACKING A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP
This story, concluded the Baal Shem Tov, illustrates a common problem in institutionalized religion. We come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or any other time of the year, and we rely on the “foxes” — the cantors and the rabbis—to serve as our representative to the King of Kings.
“The rabbi’s sermon today was unbelievable,” we often proclaim after services. “He is really awesome.” Or, “That cantor? His vibrato just melted my soul.”
These clergy all-too-often become the “foxes” who know how to get the job done for us.
Yet, sooner or later, we come to realize that the foxes, with all due respect, don’t really have what it takes to address the king on behalf of you and me. Each of us must discover his or her own inner voice and inner passion and spirit, and speak to G-d with a distinct and unique.
Cantors and rabbis during the High Holidays (and the rest of the year) ought to view themselves as the Baal Shem Tov’s foxes: Their function is to persuade and inspire people to leave their own self-contained domains and embark on a journey toward something far deeper and more real. But each and every one of us must ultimately enter the space of G-d alone.
This, then is the message we can learn from the fruit basket gifts.
This year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, don’t rely on any foxes.
Speak to G-d directly. With your own words, with your own soul. Heart to heart, from your truest place to His truest place.