Shabbat Ki Tavo: The Butterfly’s Wing

How has the human race come to this, that human beings cause the suffering and death of other human beings, even unto a three year old, photos of whose dead body are now all over the Internet? 

To take our parashat hashavua at face value, the evil way that human beings treat each other is explained very succinctly, in two harsh verses:

Because you did not serve HaShem your G-d with joy and with gladness, realizing the abundance of your blessings, therefore you will serve your enemy whom HaShem shall send against you, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things; and one more powerful than you will coerce you until you are destroyed.  (Devarim 28.47-48)

Our modern problem in understanding this verse is in perceiving it to be applicable to individuals. We reject the concept of individual reward and punishment, because we have seen it demonstrated that evil does flourish in the world, and sometimes devours the good.

Our upcoming Days of Awe offer us deep wisdom of a different, more ancient understanding: we are not just individuals, even though we are, individually, precious and irreplaceable reflections of G-d. We are also part of a family, a tribe, a kinship group, and a nation, among other circles of community.  These two verses speak to that other aspect of our existence – our communal acts. We may not know how to understand this, we may feel helpless to influence the groups of which we are a part, but that does not mean that we are unaffected.  

We are often charmed by the idea of a small act leading, through a chain of events, to a large act – smile, we are told, because that ripple effect can, somewhere down a line you cannot see, influence someone’s life profoundly. Similarly, the butterfly’s wings can, under the right conditions, begin a movement of air that can end in a hurricane, so we are told, and we are fascinated by the idea.

Is there a link between my own personal selfish behavior and the death of an innocent child in Syria? How can there not be?

To refuse to serve G-d in joy, in realization of one’s blessings, is the Torah’s way of expressing the idea that I might develop a certain spoiled indifference to the great blessings I have, and blow off the requirement to serve G-d, that is to say, to carefully discharge my responsibility to uphold human decency and ethics, instead acting lazily or arrogantly as if I deserved my great luck. In so doing I create a small curdled airwave of unhappiness. Who knows where it goes? Who knows what power enough diffidence on the part of one community might have on others – what curses it might bring, finally, back upon that community? That enemy we will end up serving is us at our worst, and our society at its worst, G-d forbid; it leads to dead children who had no one to help them.

Remember Tevye’s line – we are to rejoice even when there’s not so much to be happy about. We are commanded, as Jews, to act generously even when we feel impoverished – that is, even the poorest of us is required to give tzedakah. The secret wisdom here is that to reach out even a little to others gives strength back to us; it reminds us of the power we do have to heal, to work for the good – to help the helpless.

On this Shabbat, count your blessings. Let the joy you feel in what you do have keep you intent on serving G-d by working for a better world. There are enough curses in the world, and there is great evil. To serve G-d is to continue to act as if it is not too late for this world of ours to move away from the curses we’ve caused, and toward the redemption we can, together, create.

כתיבה וחתימה טובה – May you be written and sealed for a good year

Shabbat Ki Tavo: What Kind of Jew Are You?

This week’s parashah begins with a rare example of actual prayer formula in ancient Israel. Most of the time, “prayer”, that is, seeking to communicate with G-d, was expressed in a non-verbal form, that of sacrifice. A close look at the book VaYikra (Leviticus) will demonstrate the truth my former teacher taught in his book The Sanctuary of Silence: the kohanim did not recite words when they brought the prescribed sacrifices, and neither did the Israelites who brought them.

This is different, and it’s worth considering why. Here’s how the parashat hashavua starts:

It shall be that when you come into the land which G-d is giving you as an inheritance, and you possess it and dwell there, you shall take the first of all your fruit of the earth that you have been given by G-d, and you shall put it in a basket. Bring it to the place that G-d chooses as a dwelling place for the Name. Go in unto the priest and recite: I proclaim this day unto ה your G-d that I am come into the land which G-d promised our ancestors to give us.   – Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26.1-3

This is the model for the fall harvest later called Sukkot, which became the most significant holy day in the ritual calendar of ancient Israel. But let’s stay with the ancient words themselves. The great jurist and commentator Maimonides suggests the reason for this ritual is to reinforce Jewish ethics:

The first of everything is to be devoted to G-d, and by so doing we accustom ourselves to being generous and to limit our appetite for eating and our desire for property…it promotes humility as well. For the one who brings the first fruits takes the basket upon his shoulders and proclaims the kindness and goodness of G-d. This ceremony teaches us that it is essential in the service of G-d to recall previous experiences of suffering and distress in days of comfort. (Guide for the Perplexed, 3.39)

This parashah and Maimonides both call out to us every bit as clearly as the sound of the Shofar, the voice we hear calling us to account every day during the month of Elul. We must realize:

1. one cannot come before G-d without being ready to answer for that which one has inherited.

2. one does not come empty handed. One’s acts speak for themselves.

3. one must come in humility and awareness of suffering for one’s offering to be accepted.

As we prepare to stand before G-d ourselves soon, during the High Holy Days and then immediately afterward with our own observance of the harvest festival of Sukkot, we are naturally inclined to take a good look at ourselves and what we bring. Consider yourself as the inheritor of that ancient Israelite farmer: what are the fruits of your labor? what is in your hands, figuratively speaking, when you come to the place where the Name is found for you? What does it mean for your offering to be accepted? Who are you when you stand before G-d?

I offer you the powerful poem attached as you consider, on this Shabbat which is more than halfway through the month of Elul, who it is standing there when you come before G-d on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and all the days to come of 5775.

http://hevria.com/rachel/rachel-kind-jew/ 

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.