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Parashat Ki Tavo 5775 — 09/02/2015

Parashat Ki Tavo 5775 — 09/02/2015

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the ritual of Bikkurim, First Fruits.  As the various types of produce of the Land of Israel begin to ripen, the farmer ties a reed around the first of each species to ripen.  He would then collect all these “First Fruits” and put them in a basket, and join a joyous procession to bring them to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Rav Kook notes that those who lived relatively close to Jerusalem would bring their first fruits fresh – fresh plums, fresh grapes, etc.  Those who were farther away from Jerusalem, and whose fruits would spoil, would bring dried fruits – prunes and raisins, etc.  Rav Kook likens these two modes of bringing Bikkurim to two modes of approaching Gd: prophecy and Torah, specifically the Oral Torah.  (Of course the Torah itself was Moshe Rabbeinu’s prophecy, and was therefore prophecy of the highest order.  What Rav Kook is referring to here is the analytical study of Torah as it is found in the Talmud.)

I think we first need to understand the signifcance of “being close to Jerusalem.”  Obviously “a verse does not depart from its plain meaning” and those in physical proximity to the physical city of Jerusalem, who could bring ripe (moist) fruit to the Temple would do so.  Those who had a longer journey did not have this luxury.  However Jerusalem is also “the place which Gd chooses to have His Presence dwell.”  Those who are “close to Jerusalem” are those who are closer to Gd – and since Gd is everywhere, this cannot denote merely a physical closeness.  Rather closeness to Gd means that we are aware of Gd constantly, not on the level of a mood that we create, but on the level of direct experience.  If we have this kind of awareness, which was at its apex with Moshe Rabbeinu who “knew Gd face-to-face,” then our knowledge is direct, with little or no intervention of the intellect.  We  become a “seer” – one who “sees” reality and cognizes all its features directly, as one grasps the totality of a scene at a glance.  This is the level of prophecy.

Rav Kook goes on to say that as we became spiritually estranged and distanced from Gd/Jerusalem, prophecy ceased to function.  Our Sages tell us that the last prophets, Chaggai, Malachi and Zecharia, all flourished in the beginning days of the Second Temple period.  At that point we no longer had direct access to Gd’s Word; we had to take what we had up to that point and run with it.  It was “dried out” so it could be preserved through the long (and ongoing) period of exile.  This is the Oral Torah – the Talmud and Midrash – which analyze in very fine detail every nuance of the received text, to try to divine, pun intended, every layer of its meaning.

The difficulty with this approach is that the speaker speaks from his or her level of consciousness, while the hearer can only hear or understand from his or her own, generally lower, level of consciousness.  This in fact is how knowledge gets lost from generation to generation.  The Talmud records R. Eliezer the Great as saying that he learned only a small fraction of what his teachers taught him, and his students learned from him only a small fraction of what he had to teach them.  Even allowing for commendable modesty, the rate of loss is alarming!  The necessity for the student to rise to the teacher’s level is also brought out in the dictum that a student only grasps the full value of the teacher’s teaching after 40 years!

What is needed, and what appears to be sadly lacking in virtually every educational system, religious or secular, is a systematic procedure by which the teacher can bring the student up to a higher level of consciousness directly, so that knowledge can be transmitted without loss.  Such an educational system apparently did exist in ancient Israel – the Bible speaks of “schools of prophets,” where one learned to achieve prophetic vision from a master prophet.  Nowadays Yeshivas teach development of character along with Talmud, and the best ones provide shining examples of refined behavior that the students should emulate.  But all this, unfortunately, is still a far cry from giving direct, prophetic experience.  And, unfortunately, every so often this lack shows itself as some egregiously errant behavior.

Einstein once commented that one can never solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that caused the problem to begin with.  “Dry,” discursive thinking is never going to solve the problem of lack of connection with Gd.  That will require “fresh,” prophetic thinking, the kind of consciousness in which Gd is a full-time living reality.  Fortunately, Gd promises us that there will be a time when Mashiach comes and turns our hearts around in t’shuvah, return to our source within.  We can begin preparing ourselves in the upcoming weeks as we celebrate the Days of Awe.

Pirke Avot, Chapters 3&4

Chapter 4, Mishnah 4

Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said, Be of an exceedingly humble spirit, for the hope of man is the worm.

The simple meaning of this Mishnah is that if we remember where we’re all going – to the grave (the worms) – then we should realize that we have nothing whatsoever to be arrogant about.  This is of course quite true – there’s nothing like contemplating one’s own mortality to give oneself a sense of perspective.  This is why we, as a society, avoid facing the reality of death with a passion.  Even being present as a loved one slips away, and realizing how totally powerless you are in the face of death is a powerful antidote to arrogance.  We pray every day (in the morning blessings section of the morning service) to save us from arrogant people and from arrogance.  I take that to mean that I’m asking Gd to keep me away from my own arrogance – and I keep a picture of Marie by my prayer stand and look at it at that point in the service, just as a reminder.

I read another interpretation of this Mishnah which is quite fascinating.  When a person leaves this earth and appears before the Heavenly Tribunal to be judged for his actions, he may plead, as King David did, “I am a worm and not a man” (Ps 22:6).  In other words, we are human, physical, and torn by conflicting wants and desires and lusts.  Now if we have behaved humbly, like a worm, this argument might fly.  If, on the other hand, we’ve strutted and fretted through our life as if we were something of great significance, the Tribunal will respond, “Oh yeah?  Why didn’t you act like a worm then?”  Since this argument is our only hope of acquittal, we’d better be exceedingly humble in spirit!