Shabbat Toldot: Digging Down to Rise Up

This week’s parashat hashavua describes the difficulty Isaac encounters in establishing himself in the aftermath of his father’s death. Apparently the locals do not respect him as they did his father. 

 Isaac dug again the wells of water that were dug in the days of Abraham his father, for the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death. He called them after the names his father had called them….the herdsmen of Gerar fought with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying “the water is ours.” He called that well Esek (“contention”)….they dug another well, and they fought for that too, and he called it Sitnah (hatred). He left there and dug another well, and no one fought over it. He called it Rehovot (“wide open spaces”). (Gen.26.18-22).

This is one of the few stories the Torah preserves of Isaac as an adult. In a well, he is establishing his own relationship to the Land of Israel. There is a hint in this story of the perennial Jewish experience in the land of Israel: esek, sitnah, and finally, we hope, rehovot (which is the name of an early modern Zionist Israeli town). 

It is striking that Isaac tries to re-establish his father’s wells, and has to be pushed into digging his own. In Torah study, “digging down” is a common metaphor for seeking insight. Here, Isaac tries to understand his life by following his father’s footsteps, and repeating his acts (he too will journey to escape famine, he too will call his wife his sister, he too will have children who need to be separated). 

But re-digging his father’s wells does not work. In order to understand his own life and live it, he has to find water, and wisdom, on his own. 

What is the way to establish oneself, on one’s own, having moved past the shadow of one’s parents? What is the way to dig which leads to blessing? How do overcome all that we inherit, and find it for ourselves? Where is that living water of wisdom?


Sometimes, perhaps, instead of a great sea

It is a narrow stream running urgently


far below ground, held down by rocky layers

the deeds of mother and father, helpless sooth-sayers


of how our life is to be, weighted by clay,

the dense pressure of thwarted needs, the replay


of old misreadings, by hundreds of feet of soil,

the gifts and wounds of the genes, the short or tall


shape of our possibilities, seeking

and seeking a way to the top, while above, running


and stumbling this way and that on the clueless ground

another seeker clutches a dowsing-wand


which bends, then lifts, then straightens, everywhere,

saying to the dowser, it is there, it is not there,


and the untaught dowser believes, does not believe,

and finally simply stands on the ground above.


Till a sliver of stream finds a crack and makes its way

slowly, too slowly, through rock and earth and clay.

 (excerpted from “The Stream”, Mona Van Duyn, Letters from a Father; NY: Athenaum, 1982)


Shabbat is for memory and for musing. On this Shabbat, let memory come to you as water, bringing you closer to the wisdom of our parents that is not inherited until we dig down for ourselves.

Shabbat Hayei Sarah: Live This Day As If It Is Someone Else’s Last

I believe passionately that the key to meaningful life is learning. And I am not simply offering you my personal opinion. Our Jewish tradition asserts that if we are open to learning new insights, new perspectives, new ideas all the time – even in situations that don’t seem suited to learning – we can redeem a moment, even one that seems bleak and unforgiving.

This Shabbat we read Hayyei Sarah, “Sarah’s life”. The parashah begins with the death of Sarah, our first Matriarch. Abraham mourns. He must buy a plot of land in which to bury her (until this point he has been a landless nomad). Then we read that Abraham gives some thought to his children’s future at this point, and the parashah ends with the marriage of his soon Isaac to Rebekah, at which point we are told that “Isaac was consoled after the death of his mother Sarah”. 

There is so much to learn from this parashah, from Abraham’s experience of Sarah’s death, to the family dynamics and the behavior that ensues, and, finally, the entrance of Rebekah on the scene. It is easy to note that we move in one parashah from death to new life. It has also been noted that Isaac may have some issues with the women in his life, since he was consoled by taking his new wife into his mother’s tent. Maybe a little over-involved with Mom? To be fair, a loving partner is often the key to our ability to overcome grief and go on with our lives.

I ask you to focus with me on something a bit more subtle.  If we look carefully at the end of last week’s parashah, we can see that Abraham was living in Be’er Sheva – and Sarah is living in Kiryat Arba, also called Hevron. They are, at best, distanced from each other, perhaps even estranged. (Understandable! after Dad took the only son of the couple out to sacrifice him, without even telling Mom where they were going.) There may have been quite some distance between this couple for quite some time.

But then Sarah died, and Abraham “came to mourn her”. The wording suggests that he had to travel in order to be with her – that he was not near at hand. 

Imagine the journey that he took – the distance, not in physical steps, but in emotional stages. Guilt. Sadness. Self-recrimination. The sting of memory. Regret. Resignation. And, finally, steeling himself to see it through.

Abraham arrived at Sarah’s deathbed too late to bid her goodbye, but in time to mourn her. And that, perhaps, was enough of a reconciliation.

On Yom Kippur, if you have wronged someone and s/he has died before you had the chance to beg forgiveness, you are required to go to the grave of that person and ask for it anyway. Not because we believe that you will contact that person in some possible afterlife, but because you need to take the steps Abraham took. 

We are all told, “live each day as if it is your last”. On this Shabbat, our parashah seems to be suggesting that we might also want to try our best to live each day as if it was someone else’s last.

Shabbat Lekh Lekha: Finding Light in Darkness

One  of the more arresting insights about this week’s parashah is that it describes G-d’s third attempt to create a world.

The first attempt ended in a terrible, world-destroying flood. The second was not as cataclysmic, since G-d had sworn never to do that again, and set a bow in the clouds as a Divine reminder. Yet the second attempt also failed: even as the first humans had transgressed a boundary by reaching for G-dlike knowledge, so the Tower of Babel describes humanity’s naive hubris, displayed in an attempt to build a structure that would reach to G-d’s territory. Heaven, perhaps, or just a sort of safety unknown, and unknowable, to humans.
This third attempt shows us a G-d far less ambitious, a creation with far less impact. Not a world, and not all of humanity – just one person. What a picture: G-d reduced to searching through the world for one person who will listen, and follow.
How many times have you attempted to begin again? how disappointing it is to try once more after a failure! how much less shining the path looks, how much reduced one’s enthusiasm is…..
There is a story of a person who, in her youth, sets out to save the world. After some time and a few setbacks, she realizes that the world is a very big place, and perhaps it’s best to set one’s sights more realistically upon, perhaps, the nation. After a while the complexity of that mission overcomes her, and she begins to see how much work is needed just to lift up her own city. Then, having begun truly to see deeply, she realizes that her own neighborhood needs her attention. Then, of course (you can see it coming) she looks around and notices what needs doing in her own home. Finally, she understands: she has her hands full just to begin with herself. And that is, after all, a whole world, as the Rabbis teach: “one who saves one life, saves an entire [potential] world.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4.9).
G-d begins again with one person, possibly feeling – let’s just assume that G-d as a Creator, a role model we are meant to emulate, feels – a bit let down, that the Divine creative capacity has been disappointingly reduced. Where’s the special effects?
A great and difficult lesson of Jewish tradition offers you the insight that it is not in turning away from your failure, but in seeking within it, that one finds triumph.
Thus, in the seemingly humble beginnings of one person who listens, and who acts,  an entire people will emerge. The one person is called first Avram, then Avraham, but he calls himself ivri, “the one who crosses over”. Finally, a crossing of boundaries for good. And it only happened because of all those former boundaries that were destroyed.
Many Jewish commentaries on this parashah voice a sense of wonder that Avram is called out of nowhere, for no reason. It is entirely possible that G-d called out to many other people, who did not listen, and who did not respond. In one ancient commentary it is said that G-d’s call to Avram was not simply go forth but go forth, and light the way for Me. In the simple willingness to go forth and try again, you too can light up the world.

Shabbat Noakh: What Do you Do with It When It’s Broken?

The parashat hashavua for this week is Noakh, the week on which, as everybody knows, we read of the great Flood. But in year two of the Triennial Cycle, where we find ourselves this year, the flood is over: Noah has opened the window, and the dove has flown in with an olive leaf in its mouth. The Ark has come to rest and Noah and his family have emerged from it.

This year we read the aftermath, and see G-d’s answer to the question: what do you do with it after it’s broken?

In last week’s parashah, at the end of the Creation story, we saw how quickly things got out of hand. Humanity was barely created before we began to break things, make mistakes, and rebel against the idea that we should be obedient to G-d, and follow rules. Already by chapter 6 of Genesis, we are told: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by the human mind was nothing but evil all the time. G-d regretted making humans on the earth, and was saddened at heart. (Genesis 6.5-6)

Years ago a computer version of the creation story went around the web, and when it came to this point, it had G-d hitting DELETE – and nothing happened. The human beings kept getting more and more out of control. But in the original version, G-d brought a life-ending flood. Not only sinful humans, but innocent ones, were killed, and not only humans but animals, which were certainly blameless. What kind of G-d would do that, in a fit of anger and regret over the creation of such a terrible error?

It would be easy for an apologist to claim that “G-d had nothing to do with it, it’s just evil human choice”. But that’s no answer for those of us who seek a sense of G-d’s presence everywhere, in everything. What do we do with the innocent lives lost, and what do we do with the idea that G-d regrets. We’ll need a response to that questions, because in our reading for this week, G-d will experience regret again: this time, for destroying the earth in anger over human sinfulness. G-d will denote the rainbow as an eternal reminder – to G-d! – not to do that again.

The G-d of the Torah is not infallible. As my teacher put it in one of his books, the Torah gives us the portrait of the Artist as a young G-d. 

Knowing that even G-d has bad days, makes mistakes, and has regrets is a challenging thing if your theology is predicated on perfection. But there is a weird salvation in the idea of an imperfect G-d, and it has to do with G-d as role model. G-d creates; we, on a smaller level, create. G-d destroys; we, hopefully on a smaller level than world-wide, destroy. And G-d regrets.

Jewish tradition urges us to follow G-d’s example in clothing the naked, as G-d did last week for Adam and Eve; in visiting the sick, as G-d will do for Abraham; and burying the dead, as G-d will do for Moshe. And here is a shred of an even more important teaching: how to regret, as G-d does, and go on. Not to lose hope; not to give up; not to lose faith in oneself and one’s creative potential.

Even G-d has regrets in the early days, realizing the nature of good and evil that G-d has let loose. Even G-d has to get used to it, and choose how to act in the face of possible failure. Being a successful person in G-d’s image is not about being perfect at all.

And then G-d picked up the broken world, soothed and comforted it, made a new promise in rainbow colors, and G-d, and we, went forth. Chastened, more realistic – and still hopeful, just as we remain today. The broken places will never be whole, but after all, as another Jewish poet put it, “there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”. (see a YouTube video of Leonard Cohen performing the complete song here.)

It doesn’t matter how bad it looks – look for the light.

Shabbat Bereshit 5774: Take a Bite

 This is very simply a photograph of an apple I bought at an Israeli grocery store.


The sticker on it it what makes it priceless: Bereshit (“Genesis”) / taam Gan Eden (“the taste of the Garden of Eden”)

The term Bereshit is the name of an Israeli fruit produce company. The word eden is related to the Hebrew word for pleasure, edna. The obvious reference is to the fruit of the garden of Eden, but the more playful reference is specifically to the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

We don’t know what fruit is at the heart of the story, only that it is delights the eyes, and, we assume, the mouth as well. The Rabbis of the Talmud speculated on several possibilities, including figs, grapes, and even wheat. (See Wikipedia’s article Forbidden Fruit for more on this.) The association with the apple is probably a Christian speculation based on the fact that the Latin word “evil” is closely related to the Latin word for “apple”.

Whatever fruit it was, Eve and Adam were not supposed to eat of it. The fact that G-d created us with brains and seemed to be telling the first humans not to use them, not to consume and interiorize moral knowledge of good and evil, perplexed many rabbinic commentators. Some interpretations of the story declare that this was a test of our obedience to G-d and had nothing to do with learning morality. If so, the sources all agree, we failed miserably – and not for the first time.

There is a modern approach to understanding the story which comes from the science of psychology, which suggests that the entire Garden of Eden story is an allegory for human life and growth. In the Garden, Adam and Eve, and we, are as children; all we need is provided, and all we have to do is to clean up after ourselves, even as G-d told the first humans to “till and tend the land”. 

According to the story, it was Eve’s initiative that led to the first humans disobeying the command to leave the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil alone. She ate of it at the serpent’s suggestion, then gave it to Adam, and he ate too. One thing led to another, and ultimately the two were banished from that perfect Garden of pleasure.

But a Garden of perfect, eternal pleasure does not seem to be what we humans really desire. According to the great medieval Rabbi Judah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, the act of our creation was not completed – we did not become fully human until we could learn the difference between good and evil. We do not become human beings, not really and not completely, until the day when we develop the ability to understand and work for good, and against evil, until we can distinguish between right and wrong, and when we have developed the agency to act, knowing the costs of our actions and their promise. 

Living in a perfect paradise is not satisfying; it is boring. And that is why, according to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides), the human race should thank Eve for grabbing that apple – or whatever it was – and taking a bite. By acting to complete her creation, as G-d’s partner in the creation of her own sense of self, Eve opened the way toward our more complete development as human beings – struggling with the dangerous frustrations of our physical urges, the unruly storms of our emotions, and the soaring, exalting heights of our intellectual and spiritual ability. That’s why she is named Eve – Mother of All the Living: she opened the way for us to true, deep, mysterious, full Life.

On this Shabbat, as we bid farewell to a full and intense season of holy days and festivals, consider the spiritual year you are embarking upon: how can you follow Eve’s lead and live fully and meaningfully – physically, emotionally, intellectually.

Shabbat hol hamo’ed Sukkot 5774: What is the Fruit of Your Life?

A very long time ago, our Israelite ancestors were practicing a particular ritual of thanksgiving at this Sukkot Harvest Festival time of year:


And it shall be, when you come into the land that  יה G-d is about to give you in estate, and you take hold of it and dwell in it, you shall take from the first yield of all the fruit of the soil that you will bring from your land which  יה G-d is about to give you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that  יה G-d chooses to make the Name dwell there. You shall come to the priest who will be in those days,and you shall say to him, “I have told today to יה your G-d that I have come into the land which  יה swore to our ancestors to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and lay it down before the altar of  יה your G-d. And you shall recite before  יה your G-d: “My father was an Aramean about to perish, and he went down to Egypt, and he sojourned there….and  יה brought us out of Egypt….to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look, I have brough the first yield of the fruit of the soil that you gave me,  יה.(Deut. 26.1-10, excerpted; trans. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses)


This is the earliest record we have of a formal recitation; usually it is our acts only that are prescribed. Consider the acts, and the words, which our tradition puts in our mouths in these moments:


1. when you become aware that the promise of your life is being fulfilled (through lots of hard work of tilling and tending, of course), you are to take from the first fruits of that fulfillment.

2. you are to bring those first fruits, in whatever form they take, and donate them.

3. there is a witness (the priest) to your act.

4. you articulate a formal version of your community’s identity story


It’s hard to concentrate on Sukkot when we’ve just put so much energy into Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, but if the two major Days of Awe are thesis and antithesis, then Sukkot is really a powerful form of synthesis, of demonstrating that one has actually reached a new place because of the Days of Awe we’ve just observed. On Rosh HaShanah we reflect and consider, and on Yom Kippur we face the truth of our lives – and on Sukkot, then, one might have something new to say about the real “fruit” of one’s life. 


Note, also, that this is one more ritual act you cannot carry out alone. You need a priestly witness who represents G-d and the community in which you have been working on the seeding, weeding, and harvesting of your life. 


Your life is a field full of glorious fruits and flowers. Look over the field in its richness. What fruits of your life are ready for harvest on this Sukkot? And how will you give thanks by sharing them?


חג שמח – hag sameakh, may you celebrate the abundance in your life during these days of our Sukkot Festival 

Shabbat Shuvah: Yir’ah and Trembling

We are now entered into a ten-day period of what are meant to be Days of Awe. Awe is a difficult concept for us – the vibrant, incessant creativity of the English language has turned “awesome” into an appreciative adjective for almost anything. For our ancestors, awe – in Hebrew, yir’ah – meant the emotions that go along with a state of awareness in which one became aware of the incredible vastness of the Universe, and one’s own smallness within it. What emotions? nothing easy, really: slack-jawed amazement; heart-opening transcendence; the kind of humility that led a poet to write “O G-d, thy sea is so vast, and my ship so small”….and, also, fear.

If we are lucky, we will each have that experience at some point in our lives. For Jews, one way of understanding it is as the “Sinai moment”.  The philosopher Rudolph Otto describes the experience in his classic book The Idea of the Holy. Of all things, Otto visited a shul on Yom Kippur and wrote of having a sense of a mysterium tremendum during the prayers – an overwhelming, mysterious sense of something vast, and it filled him with an unsettling awe.

That awe, yir’ah in Hebrew, connotes the wow of standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or of – for a privileged few – seeing the Earth from space, or even of contemplating a good photograph taken by the Hubble telescope. But it also includes an edge of fear: the fear of one so small in all that vastness, that one becomes aware of one’s terrifying vulnerability to loneliness, to accident, and to meaninglessness. What is it, to be a speck in the cosmos? And to be assured that, nevertheless, you, yourself, are worth it all?

And how might one react to this awareness? If you have the experience on a mountaintop, all well and good – but when you bring it to shul, you are given the gift of a chance to explore it, to talk about it, or just to react to it, within a community that will support you in those moments, and even, possibly, say, “yeah – I know what you mean.”

The prayers we recite during the High Holy Days are meant to help you find the awe in your life – whether you are feeling very small, even helpless, or very blessed, and grateful. Either situation can leave one without words. But no situation need leave you without companions.

Teshuvah, “turning” is a movement toward the self, toward others, and toward G-d – all at the same time. On this Shabbat Shuvah, may you find yourself willing to turn, even toward that which is the most awesome and frightening mystery of all – your ability to change.

Selikhot meditation: justice is not enough

The days grow fewer until we reach what our tradition calls The Great Day of Judgement. On this Motza’ey Shabbat, as the Shabbat concludes, the Ashkenazi community begins daily midnight prayers of Selikhot, asking for forgiveness. In these prayers we consider: how are we to be judged? in other words, how are we to best do G-d’s will? and what is the highest expression of that will?


On Shabbat Shoftim a few weeks ago we read in the parashat hashavua “justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16.20). Justice, tzedek, is often considered the highest end of an ethical Jewish life, and this verse, we are taught, comes to tell us that we must pursue the ends of justice using just means. The ends do not, in Judaism, justify any means to that end. We must pursue justice in just ways. That is true. But it is not enough. We must also pursue justice in kind ways.


It is possible to be just and unkind. It is possible to be right, and unkind. It is even possible to be righteously angry – it may be within your rights – but in that case, certainly, there will be a lack of kindness.


Justice, in Jewish tradition, is not the highest good in life. You have probably heard of the Jewish song which tells us what is:


על שלושה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים

al shlosha devarim ha’olam omeyd: al haTorah, al haAvodah, v’al Gemilut Hasadim 

Upon three things the world depends: on Torah, on Service, and on Loving Kindness. (Pirke Avot 1.2)


We understand this Talmudic teaching to be offering us a vision, of a three-legged stool if you like – one strong enough to sustain the entire world. Consider these three pillars; each one offers us a way into the repentance we must discover and practice if we are to grow past the current version of ourselves that we struggle with, the way Jacob struggled all night by the river.


Torah, which is to say, study, and more than that: learning. If you would have a stable world, your own and that of the entire planet, there must be openness to learning. Learning is not only about maintaining good brain health; “brain exercises” for their own sake are just one more form of American narcissism. 

Learning cannot take place outside of a context of repentance, for repentance is the posture of humility, of NOT knowing it all. Without a repentant heart, a heart that repents of its desire for protection, one never learns anything that might actually be painful enough to lead to growth. Have you learned that you caused pain to someone? Can you learn how not to do it again? Can you be open enough even for that painful growth? This is true on the highest scale: the best teacher is the one who is not personally pained, or threatened, by the student who learns more than she; and the entire world is better off when that student makes the next breakthrough in the understanding of our world, and how to care for it. 


Torah in this sense – the learning that leads to your own improvement, and makes you a better person, capable of giving your best – this is the learning upon which the world literally depends for stability.


Avodah, “service”. It is a natural human desire to want to be of use, to be of service to others, and to a great cause. This Hebrew word refers to service in the highest sense: service to G-d. Originally that service consisted of giving back to G-d that which we had received, in order to keep the world balanced, and to keep the flow coming. When we were shepherds, we gave lambs; when we were farmers, we gave first fruits of our orchard. Now that most of us derive our sustenance in different ways, what is the equivalent of that lamb, that first fruit? How do we give it to G-d in a way that keeps the world balanced?

Repentance offers us the chance to consider the true worth of our service to G-d. Or, as the philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovich pointed out, to realize that it is actually only ourselves that we are serving, since we only act when we feel like it, when we have time, when it’s a cause that “speaks to me”, when we’re not busy saying we’ve already done enough, or when we feel thanked.


Avodah is the service that can never be thanked, in which we all do what is required to honor the essential worth of our own offering, and its necessity to the world, and when we understand that only that is enough.


Gemilut Hasadim, “loving kindness”. All of this – all the learning in the world, and all the service – will not stand unless it is done in kindness. This is a higher level than justice, for justice is what is expected of us. Loving kindness is a higher level, and it is the level at which we are expected to function in the world. 

When do you forget to be kind? when are you afraid to be kind? when do you feel too personally attacked to be kind? When do you, G-d forbid, feel that it is okay to be unkind?


The world will be stable and dependably firm on its foundations only when we manage to support all three of these pillars. Torah learning is not enough (there are mean Torah teachers) and Avodah is not enough (there are people who insist on their right to resent the service they undertake in the world). It is all empty unless it is accompanied by that most precious and elusive of qualities: kindness.


As we move through the last days of Elul and toward Yom Kippur, think of someone it is hard for you to be kind to, or a situation that brings out the worst in you. What can you do to remind yourself to be kind? Repentance is not some moment of grace that falls on you from above; it takes work, devotion, and time to change those neural pathways that cause us to act out of habit. But with a little bit of the humility that allows you to believe that you, even you, can improve, you might.

Shabbat Nitzavim-VaYelekh: Standing Firm And Walking It Forward

We are reading a double parashah this week. The first of the two readings is called standing firm in place, and the second is walking, going forward, toward something. One teaching we can derive from the fact that these two parashot are often read together is that we are to be doing both of these apparently utterly contradictory things at the same time. It is something we do all the time in Judaism, and it is vital.


What does it look like to stand firm and to walk at the same time? It’s a way of separating out that which is really important from that which is simply familiar and comfortable. It’s something we strive to do in our congregational family in many ways:


Shabbat and Holy Day prayer

With all Jews, we stand firm with the tradition that Shabbat starts on Friday night and goes through Saturday.

We walk it forward in exploring different ways to observe Shabbat (kirtan-style Kley Kodesh services, Kabbalat Shabbat dinner instead of services, etc)…not to mention declaring that Shabbat starts when we can be together to make it, not necessarily at sundown.


With all other Jews, we stand firm with our holy day dates, even though they’re inconvenient.

We walk it forward by figuring out ways to bring the holy day to us – on this Rosh HaShanah, if you can’t come to morning services to hear the Shofar being blown, hopefully you can at least make it to Tashlikh at the river, where we’ll blow the biggest blast we can for you.


Wherever our congregation expresses our sense of what it means here and now to be Jewish, we negotiate this balancing act, between tradition and thoughtful inheritance. 

We stand firm in our belief that there is a value in the tradition we’ve inherited, because we belong to the people that has created it and passed it on in every generation. 

We walk it forward, because we are now the generation that receives it and figures out how to keep it alive and vibrant so that it can help us figure out our purpose in life – and, hopefully, those who will come after us.


In the Torah, the first word, Nitzavim, is in the plural: we are all standing firm together, each of us helping each other to receive the tradition, to understand it and do it. And the second word, VaYelekh, is in the singular, indicating that each one of us has the privilege and the responsibility of carrying it onward. Each of us makes all of us, and only when we are all voices are welcomed in the congregation do we lift up our voices in our shir tikvah, our “song of hope”. 


On this Shabbat, may you feel more honestly your own voice in the myriad harmonies of the Voice of Torah that strengthens us to stand firm, and inspires us to go forward, together.

Shabbat Ki Tavo: What Are Your First Fruits?

This week’s parashah begins with a somewhat unusually detailed description of a ritual meant to give thanks for the harvest. Later in the parashah we are told to celebrate with a big meal and invite all your friends, and be generous too, and invite neighbors and others who might otherwise be left out. The initial verses offer us some interesting guidance into how we ourselves are meant to see our own “harvests”, even if we have only a very small garden and the real strength of the passage is metaphorical:


When you enter the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you as a heritage, 

and you possess it and settle in it….


We spend our early years getting settled into some kind of living, including making a living. Some will accumulate possessions, and others experiences; but at some point each one of us realizes that we are the fortunate recipients of a harvest.


What have you harvested in your life? what form do the fruits of your labors take? How do you share them, and when?


….you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil which you harvest 

from the land that the Eternal your G-d is giving you, 

put it in a basket, 

and go to the place where the Eternal will choose to cause the Name to dwell. 

You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him,

“I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your G-d

that I have entered into the land that the Eternal swore to our ancestors

to give us.”  ….You shall leave it before the Eternal your G-d

and bow low before the Eternal your G-d. (Devarim 26.1-3…10)


In ancient Israel, the harvest was a tricky thing: weather permitting, local political and social conditions allowing, and, of course, no locusts, one might actually eke out enough of a harvest to be able to recite a special blessing, the one you say when you have “eaten AND been satisfied”. The latter condition was not always realistic.


Our ancestors understood that in order to encourage the flow of goodness, some of it had to be given back, just as fallen fruit in an orchard is plowed under to become a simple fertilizer, and to help nurture the next year’s crop. Burying figs near the fig tree’s roots is an easy way to thank the fig tree; but how does one give thanks for the fact that fig trees exist, and that I exist to eat them? How does one give thanks meaningfully to the Source of Life?


Our ancestors brought some of each type of food they harvested and gave it to God, in a nice basket no less.This supported the Temple workers (aka the Levites, who don’t have harvests because instead of fields, their assignment in the Promised Land is the Temple). The Temple’s existence made it possible for there to be a place for the average Israelite to focus upon when it came time to express gratitude.


How do you give thanks for what you have? Tzedakah is, of course, the classic Jewish expression of gratitude. It originally referred to the amount you were required to give over and above your taxes. In the narrowest sense of the word, it is still that. But some of us don’t make enough to pay taxes…and that does not mean that we do not still have a lot of gratitude to express. Happiness, as it has been noted in song, story and modern sociological study, is not dependent upon money.


Note one final thought: when you are moved to express your thanks for what you have, it’s not enough to donate something that’s second hand, damaged in transit, or just something you no longer want or need:


What is the “first fruit”? According to the Mishnah, the farmer goes into the field regularly to check on the progress of the crop. When the farmer sees the first ripening, a ribbon is tied around the stem of the fruit; this is the first fruit. If it also turns out later to be the very best fruit, that is all the better. But the meaning of the “first fruit” is faith: to give back the first fruit, before one even knows if one will have enough, is to express one’s understanding that it is not my skill that created this, and it does not belong to me. Rather, this is a blessing bestowed upon me, and in giving it away I assert that I believe that, as long as I live a life of integrity in community, I can depend on having “enough”, whatever that turns out to mean.


We no longer have a Temple to bring first fruits to, but we have our sacred places, and at our best, that is what we are called upon to bring to them. To give of one’s first fruits to G-d is to assert faith in the long-term outcome of your faithful daily engagement in the world, no matter what it is you do to make a living, and to make your life. On this Shabbat, may you truly be able to see the richness of your harvests, and find joy in giving of the best that you have, secure in the knowledge that more blessing will always come your way.