Monday, August 31, 2015

Parashat Ki Tavo 5775 Gratitude

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tavo 5775

The life that awaits the Children of Israel in the Promised Land will hold many challenges alongside its rewards, and in Parashat Ki Tavo Moshe turns the spotlight on both sides of this coin.

The Land of Israel is unlike any other place in the world. It is a land imbued with a spiritual personality, a delicate constitution that will not tolerate sin. On the other hand, avoiding sin is not enough. Living in Israel will entail additional obligations, and in this parashah Moshe describes one of these additional mitzvot: Bikurim.

The mitzvah of Bikurim will be fulfilled long after his own passing, after the conquest of the Land and the division of the tribal portions, after homes are built, after fields and orchards and vineyards are planted and the first harvest is gathered. This, Moshe explains, will not be ordinary produce; this is holy fruit of the Holy Land, and it will require special treatment: The very first fruit, the produce that has been so anxiously awaited, is to be placed in a basket and carried to Jerusalem. With this precious harvest in hand, the farmer is commanded to recite a specific text, recounting a brief history of the Jewish People. The ritual is designed to place the celebration of the harvest into historical as well as spiritual context, culminating in the harvest that symbolizes our status as a free and holy nation.  

As we read Moshes description of Bikurim, the ritual of the First Fruits, we might take a moment to consider the contrast with the other first fruits mentioned in the Torah the very first fruits, in the Garden of Eden. The reality in which Adam and Eve existed was unique: Their proximity to God Himself, the immediacy of their connection to His Presence, and the symbiosis of that spirituality with the well-being of the Garden and its holy fruits are echoed in the reality into which the Israelites would enter as they crossed the Jordan. However, the earlier experience, the experiment of entrusting man with the holy fruits in Eden, was a failure, ending in disaster and exile. Careful consideration of the Bikurim ceremony gives us the sense that the mitzvah we are commanded to perform with the first fruits is in some way a tikun, a type of spiritual healing for the misappropriation of those very first fruits of the Garden: First an foremost, Adam and Eve had allowed themselves to be convinced by the Serpent that eating the forbidden fruit would somehow transform them into gods.[1] The Bikurim ritual is a direct and unmistakable counter to that sort of self-centered delusion. Jewish farmers take their most precious harvest in hand, and remind themselves how it came to be. Rather than self-congratulation for their resourcefulness and success, they consciously, even demonstrably, thank God for this produce.

In two separate comments, Rashi elucidates a second element of the sin in the Garden of Eden.

God called to the man, and He said, 'Where are you [trying to hide]?''I heard Your voice in the garden,' [Adam] replied, 'and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.' [God] asked, 'Who told you that you are naked? Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat?' The man replied, 'The woman that you gave to be with me - she gave me what I ate from the tree.' (Bereishit 3:9-12)

The very fact that God engaged man in conversation indicates that at this point all was not lost; there may yet have been words or gestures of repentance or conciliation. But instead of expressing remorse, Adam points an accusative finger at his wife, the soul mate provided by God. Essentially, Adam blames everyone but himself for his moral lapse. Instead of saying thank you for being introduced to the woman of his dreams, Adam attempts to shift all the blame to her. Rashi[2] labels this behavior a lack of gratitude, a lack of appreciation for what God has provided. In a very real sense, this lack of gratitude is original sin. God created man with limitations and foibles; that was always a part of the design. We might say that the transgression of eating from the forbidden fruit was not nearly as disappointing as what ensued: The true test of man is not in whether or not he will fail; inevitably, almost unavoidably, he will. The greater test lies not only in taking responsibility for his actions and his failures - but in his ability to recognize, appreciate and give thanks for the gifts that God bestows upon him.

Commenting on the mitzvah of Bikurim and on the verses that make up the text of its ritual, Rashi illustrates how the historical and theological context it creates is designed to teach us to be grateful and at the same time allow us an opportunity to express that gratitude.[3]  

Appreciation for what God does for us is the foundation of religious life. Appreciation for what other human beings do for us is the foundation of decency and, by extension, a decent society. The greatest enemy of this sort of decency is the overdeveloped sense of entitlement from which modern man too often suffers. It blinds us to the wonderful gifts God gives us, deludes us into thinking that this is Gods responsibility, His job description. Similarly, we are often guilty of belittling or taking for granted what other people do for us, even when, and especially when, it is in their job description. We expect service because we deserve it, but are we appreciative when we get it? Do we express that appreciation? Do we allow the other person to feel our appreciation?

The experience in the Garden of Eden was a microcosm of life in the Land of Israel: Misbehavior results in expulsion, exile. The fruit of the Garden, like the fruit of the Land, belongs to God. We are given sustenance as a gift from His hand. The farmers who toil in the Land of Israel are allowed to partner with Him in this holy endeavor, but they must never forget the true source of our sustenance. The Bikurim ritual, and the joyous way in which it is performed, allow us to thank God and all the angels among us whom he sends to protect and provide for us each and every day for our bountiful, miraculous sustenance.

For a more in-depth analysis see:
Rabbi Ari Kahn’s new book on the parashah, A River Flowed From Eden, is now available.

[1] Bereishit 3:5.
[2] Rashi, Bereishit 3:12.
[3] Rashi, Dvarim 26:3.

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Essays and Lectures Parashat Ki Tavo 5775

Monday, August 24, 2015

Parashat Ki Tetze 5775 Another Brick in the Wall

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Ki Tetze 5775
Another Brick in the Wall

Over the past few chapters we have noted a gradual shift in the topics Moshe addresses as he imparts his final lessons to the Jewish People. From an extensive polemic against idolatry, the focus shifts to the building of the Temple, and then moves on to other national institutions such as the establishment and mandate of courts, the monarchy and prophets. To a large extent, this weeks parashah narrows the lens, moving to commandments of a more interpersonal or individual nature. Though Moshe touches upon many commandments, one particular topic is mentioned numerous times: marriage.[1] Although much of the discussion revolves around what might be called unconventional relationships -- the wife taken as a captive of war, polygamy and preference of one wife above the other, and more -- there is one brief mention of love, marriage and happiness.

When a man takes a new bride, he shall not enter military service or be assigned to any associated duty. He must remain free for his family for one year, and rejoice with his bride. (Dvarim 24:5)

The Sefer HaHinuch, an early (anonymous) book of Mitzvot, notes that the concept of marriage is a stark, polar opposite to sexual promiscuity (that is mentioned earlier in this parashah Dvarim 23:18). The selection of one special person, as described poetically by Adam[2] in the Garden of Eden, is the ideal:

A man shall therefore leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Bereishit 2:24)

One man, one woman; this a relationship of exclusivity.

In a sense, the nature of marriage mirrors the relationship outlined earlier in Dvarim regarding the Beit Hamikdash. We are told to serve God in one chosen, special place:

Do away with all the places where the nations whom you are driving out worship their gods, [whether they are] on the high mountains, on the hills, or under any luxuriant treeYou may not worship the Almighty God in such a manner. This you may do only on the site that the Almighty God will choose from among all your tribes, as a place established in His name. It is there that you shall go to seek His presence. (Devarim 12:2-5)

While the idolaters worshiped under every tree and upon every hill and high place, the Jews were commanded to worship God exclusively in one centralized place  - a place later identified as Jerusalem. We might say that the difference between the Jewish approach to worship and the idolatrous approach is the difference between a one night stand and a marriage, between promiscuity and the union of two people joined in holiness. Idolatry, particularly regarding the element of immediate gratification, is spiritual promiscuity.

When a bride and groom rejoice in one another, their happiness stems in no small part from the joy of exclusivity, from the knowledge that their chosen partner is the only person with whom they will share the holiness of marriage and sexual intimacy. This is happiness born of holiness. In this context, the Talmud teaches us that not only is it incumbent upon the husband to bring joy and happiness to his spouse, but all those who attend the wedding are commanded to bring happiness to the new couple. In fact, the Talmud (Talmud Bavli Brachot 6b) goes so far as to say that whoever successfully brings joy to the bride and groom, is considered to have rebuilt one of the ruins of Jerusalem.

As we know, the ruin of Jerusalem is the Temple itself, a building dedicated to the exclusive relationship between God and His People. When the people  cheated on God, as was the case during the First Temple era, or simply took their relationship with Him for granted, as was the case during the Second Temple era, the Temple was destroyed. On the personal scale, marriage, with its essential component of exclusivity, serves as a metaphor for the relationship between man and God; in essence, it is a microcosm of that relationship. When a husband and wife find joy in this holiness of marriage, they build not only their own interpersonal relationship, but also the community as a whole, as well as the relationship between man and God. They become partners in the rebuilding of the Temple.

Every Jewish home is holy. In a sense, every Jewish home is a microcosm of the Holy Temple. Therefore, every happy Jewish home serves as a step to the complete rebuilding of Jerusalem.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

[1] This essay is dedicated to the marriage of our son Yosef Dov, to Shoval Cohen.
[2] There are those who claim this declaration was an “editorial” statement made by God.

Echoes of Eden