Monday, August 27, 2018

Potential Energy

Parashat Ki Tavo begins by juxtaposing two important agricultural laws. First (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), the Torah instructs the Israelites to bring bikkurim, the first fruits from among the special fruits of the Land of Israel (wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates). When bringing the bikkurim to the Temple in Jerusalem, the farmer is to read a text invoking the bitter Egyptian enslavement of the farmer’s ancestors, the Israelites’ prayers for redemption, and a declaration acknowledging God heeding those prayers by delivering the former slaves to a land flowing with milk and honey. The bikkurim were brought in beautiful containers and the farmers were accompanied to the Temple amid great joy and pageantry.

Immediately following in the text of the Torah, is a passage about Ma’aser, tithes (Deuteronomy 26:12-16), immediately follows the paragraph of bikkurim. The Bible commands the Jews to give 1/10th of their produce to the Levites, the tribe sanctified to minister in the Temple who were not given a portion of land in the Land of Israel. This tithe is called Ma’aser Rishon, the First Tithe.

The Torah also required additional tithes, based on the seven year agricultural cycle. In years 3 and 6, Jews gave Ma’aser Ani, a tithe to the poor, which is the subject of these verses. In years 1,2,4 and 5, the Jews took the tithe, known as Ma’aser Sheini, the Second Tithe, which was to be eaten in Jerusalem (or its value spent in Jerusalem).

The farmer who brought his tithes, asks God to bless the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation, to fulfill its special mission.

Why are Bikkurim, which celebrate the first fruits at the very beginning of the harvest, commemorated with such fanfare and public celebration, yet bringing the ma’aser, which offers gratitude after the harvest is complete, seems to be done privately and without any festivity? Would it not make more sense to celebrate the conclusion of an entire planting cycle, which potentially provides sustenance for an entire family, rather than make much ado about some individual figs and grapes that have matured? The same question may be asked, regarding why we expend so much effort to make big and joyous weddings, while 25th or 50th anniversary celebrations – clearly greater accomplishments – are much more subdued and smaller occasions.

The answer to all these questions may be that while Judaism believes in rejoicing in “results and outcomes,” it celebrates potential even more, because the goals are limitless.

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