Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Living in Israel and the Feast of First Fruits

Each of the שלש רגלים has a מגילה associated with it. On פסח, we read שיר השירים, and on סוכות, we read קהלת. Today, we read מגילת רות. רות begins with a famine in the land of Israel. Elimelech, one of the great men of the generation, takes his wife and two sons to the land of Moav, outside of Eretz Yisrael. There Elimelech dies, and eventually, so do his two children, Machlon and Kilyon. The stage is then set for Naomi to return to Israel with רות and eventually create the Davidic dynasty. Why is רות chosen to be read on שבועות? After an exploration of the holiday, perhaps we can come up with a deeper understanding.
The torah reading for the holidays is taken from פרשת המועדים, found in פרשת פנחס. Yesterday, we read "וביום הביכורים", the description of the offerings for שבועות. Interestingly, the holiday is not called חג השבועות, but יום הביכורים. The holiday is called so because the unique קרבן brought on it is the שתי הלחם, the first of the new wheat crop which could be brought to the בית המקדש. The holiday of ביכורים was also the time that most crops ripened, and was therefore the prime time to do the מצווה of ביכורים. We call it שבועות, named by the 7 week period of עומר leading from יציאת מצריים to מעמד הר סיני and the giving of the torah to the Jewish people.

Let us first discuss the special קרבן of the holiday, שתי הלחם. The torah says in ויקרא כג:טו, in פרשת אמור: "וספרתם לכם ממחרת השבת מיום הביאכם את עומר התנופה שבע שבתות תמימות תחיינה...והקרבתם מנחה חדשה לה'...ממושבותיכם תביאו לחם תנופה שתים שני עשרונים...ביכורים לה'" At the end of the 7 weeks, we are commanded to bring the offering, which is two measures of wheat flour baked into two loaves that are waved in the בית המקדש. The obvious question is, why two loaves? Usually, a קרבן consists of one bull, ram or goat. Why suddenly the number two? Also, the meal offering of פסח was barley. Why is the שבועות one of wheat?
In שמות ו:ט, it states that when Moshe began trying to convince Pharaoh to free the Jews, even the Jews would not listen to Moshe, "מקוצר רוח ומעבודה קשה", because of the tremendous strain and burden of the slavery. חז"ל on this פסוק explain interpret that the Jews did not listen to Moshe to abandon their idolatrous ways. This is difficult. Why do חז"ל invent a new reason that the Jews did not listen to Moshe? The torah already provided one, that the Jews were weary and strained from the hard labor! ספר גלילי זהב offers an explanation: Many animals live alone, without belonging to a herd or group. They live, hunt, kill and eat for one reason: to serve themselves. Other animals live in a herd and are sometimes even willing to lay down their lives to protect the herd. We as Jews are meant not to only to live a personal, individual life, but to sublimate that personal life to the כלל, to כלל ישראל. We are to see our individual selves as citizens of a nation, and we are to see the national goals of עם ישראל as goals that are more important than individual goals. In short, we are meant to be not self-centered, but nation-centered, כלל ישראל-centered. חז"ל say that this is a fundamental difference between the Jews and non-Jews. Regarding עשו, the torah says נפשות, souls, and regarding יעקב it says נפש, soul. Jews, since they serve one G-d, are one unbreakable unit, while non-Jews, who serve many gods, are each an individual unit. True, non-Jews come together to form alliances and nations, but they only do so for external financial, military or social concerns. Jews, on the other hand, are fundamentally an indivisible unit because we all serve one G-d.
When a Jew loses this sensitivity to the nation and becomes an individual who only looks out for himself, that Jew is no longer serving G-d, rather himself. This is עבודה זרה, idolatry.
It is this idolatry that חז"ל were concerned with in מצריים. The burden of slavery caused the Jews to think as individuals, and lose their national identity. And so, on פסח, the meal offering is made of barley, the traditional food of animals. However, on שבועות, Jews are to rise above their animalistic, individualistic ways and become Human, identifying themselves as Jews on a national level. Therefore, the meal offering of שבועות is wheat, the grain of human food. Also, I think that the two loaves is also symbolic of the fact that the Jewish way is to care for others. The two loaves represent a Jew caring not only for himself, but for s neighbor, as well.
The רמב"ם in his פרוש המשניות on בכורות ד:ג states, "בני ארץ ישראל הם הנקראים קהל". The Jews of the Land of Israel are the ones who are considered the plurality, the nation of Israel. The חתם סופר drives home this point by saying that, "אילו חס ושלום לא ישאר שום ישראל בארץ ישראל, אפילו יהיו יושבים ישראל בחוץ לארץ, מקרי כליון האומה, חס ושלום" “If, Heaven forbid, no Jews lived in Israel, even if they lived outside of Israel, it would still be considered the destruction of the nation.” The חתם סופר is clear: although Jews would still live, the nation of the Jews would be destroyed. The רמב"ם and חתם סופר are based on the גמרא in כתובות קי, which states that, “ a person should live in Israel even in a city that is full of non-Jews, rather than a city outside Israel that is full of Jews. This teaches one who dwells outside Israel is as if he worships idols”. One who lives outside Israel is as if he is an idolater in the sense of idolatry of the Jews in Egypt, the idolatry of self-centeredness. One who lives outside of Israel is weaker in their national bonds of כלל ישראל, and thus, if there were no Jews in Israel, the national brotherhood and connection of Jews, the אומה, the nation, would be lost.
To summarize, the idea of the שבועות offering of שתי הלחם is an admonition to be concerned with the concerns of the nation, not only our own individual concerns. When we are concerned only with ourselves, our efforts die with us. But when we connect our lives with the concerns of the כלל, our lives become eternal, for כלל ישראל is eternal. This eternity is only in full force in ארץ ישראל.

But why is this eternity only in the land of Israel? To understand this, let us examine the ביכורים, which is the torah’s name for שבועות.
In מסכת ביכורים פרק ג', the משניות describe the ceremony of ביכורים: “How were the ביכורים taken up [to ירושלים]? All the cities of district would assemble in the [central] city of the district, and spend the night in the open space without entering any of the houses. Early in the morning the officer would say, "Arise, let us ascend to Zion, to the house of ה' our G-d!" ... An ox [with horns] bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head led the way ..."
Rabbi Kook, in his commentary on the משנה, explains the symbolism of the ox in depth. The Jewish nation is meant to be an "עם לבדד ישכון", a nation apart from the others. We were given a land which can produce all that the nation needs. And so, a large part of the nation lived an agricultural life. The ביכורים are a symbol that demonstrates how we are to look at the agricultural process. The ox represents honest labor. Only through hard work and השתדלות can the ברכה of ה' devolve upon our fruits. When we learn the lesson of the ox, then will we merit to the gold on its horns. The gold symbolizes prosperity. This gold is placed on the ox’s horns. The horns of an animal are external tools given to the animal. The horns symbolize the fact that the gold is a tool, a means to an end, and not an end in itself. Gold, or prosperity, is only a means to the ultimate goal, and that is what sits on the ox’s head: olives. Olive oil is a symbol for light, specifically, the light of the מנורה. The מנורה was a symbol of חכמה, torah knowledge. Thus, we work to become prosperous, but the purpose of that prosperity is to allow us time and energy for the ultimate goal, which is the learning and keeping of the torah.
The symbol of the ceremony of ביכורים now becomes taking the secular and making it holy. We take physical labor, and elevate it to holiness. The purpose of עם ישראל is not to dabble in holiness. We are not to live a life in which we have many points of holiness. No! We are to take our whole lives, even the most spiritually empty parts of it, even the חול in our lives, and elevate it to קודש, to holiness! Our lives must be an infusion of holiness into the profane. This is the lesson of the ביכורים.
But it is only in the land of Israel that we engage in the bringing of ביכורים. ביכורים are only brought from the fruits of the land of Israel. The lesson of ביכורים can only be fully understood and put into practice in the land of Israel. Why is this?
In next week’s פרשה, שלח, ten leaders of Israel tour Israel and incite the nation to rebel against entering Israel. These men were great צדיקים and גדולים of the generation. How could they sin so grievously? Rav Greenburg, ראש ישיבה at כרם ביבנה explains that the מרגלים were seduced by the benefits of life in the desert. In the desert, G-d miraculously cared for the Jewish nation’s every physical need. Our clothing grew along with us, and did not wear out. We had the מן outside our tents every morning. We had the well of מרים to quench our thirst. All we had to do was learn torah from משה רבינו. The מרגלים decided, why leave this paradise and go into Israel where we will have to work the land, fight wars and set up government? Why not stay in the מדבר where we do not have to really come in contact with the profane?
The מרגלים misunderstood the basic lesson of the torah that is taught by the ביכורים. True spirituality is only gained by infusing חול with קדושה. Only by entering the land of Israel and engaging in the profane and elevating it to קדוש do we really fulfill our calling as Jews.
And only in Israel do we truly fulfill this calling. Only in Israel, a land where even the physical labor is a service of G-d, where working the land is a mitzvah in and of itself. The גמרא in כתובות states that walking ד' אמות in Israel changes a bad decree from Heaven. Israel is different from other lands. In Israel, even the physical act of walking has spiritual repercussions. The גמרא elsewhere states that, "אוירא דארץ ישראל מחכים", the air of Israel endows us with wisdom. Only Israel has this special קדושה which allows even its physical characteristics to be laden with spiritual meaning and power.
The מרגלים did not understand the meaning of ארץ ישראל. The lesson of ביכורים was lost on them.
To summarize what we have learned so far: Israel is a special land where the physical is imbued with spiritual meaning. It is the only land where the Jewish task of infusing the profane with holiness can be fully realized. The מרגלים did not realize the importance of taking the physical and making it spiritual.
We can now better understand why the Jews of Israel are considered כלל ישראל, and outside Israel, Jews are less connected to the national aspect of עם ישראל. It is because our sacred task, the infusion of spirit into physical, can only truly be accomplished in Israel. Outside the land, we are, as it were, mired in the idolatry of self-centeredness, by not focusing on the כלל.

This brings back to מעמד הר סיני and שבועות. In ילקוט שמעוני on פרשת יתרו, the מדרש tells us that G-d gave the torah under the מזל of תאומים, the star sign of Gemini, twins. If עשו had chosen to convert and rejoin the nation of Israel, he would have been welcome. Why did עשו not choose so? The גרי"ז explains that when ה' promised the land to אברהם and his descendants, he said that first, those descendants would go through a torturous exile, and only after this, would then come to take over the land. רש"י comments that when עשו left יעקב, he left from fear of this exile. עשו said, "אין לי חלק לא במתנה שנתנה לו הארץ ולא בפרעון השטר." עשו decided that he abdicates his right to the land, and will not go down to exile for it. יעקב is left as the only descendant who goes down to Egypt, and is given as a reward the rights to the land and the Torah. This is why עשו did not merit מתן תורה. Originally, עשו and יעקב were to be the fathers of the Jewish nation. עשו would deal with the physical, and יעקב would deal with the spiritual, like a יששכר זבולון relationship. This is what the חז"ל mean when they say that עשו could have had a part in מתן תורה. However, when עשו gave up on the exile and on the land, he gave up on torah, as well.

So, back to our original thought. Why is מגילת רות chosen as the מגילה of שבועות? In בבא בתרא דף פא, רבי שמעון בר יוחאי states that the reason that Elimelech and his sons died was that they left the land of Israel. The גמרא in מגילה states that one who dies outside the land of Israel is lamented that he died before his time. The מהרש"א explains that he who dies outside of Israel must have died early because of the sin of living outside ארץ ישראל. If I may, I would like to present a חידוש. Perhaps the early death that the גמרא speaks of is not necessarily dying before one’s time, but something more subtle. Perhaps the גמרא is telling us that one who lives outside ארץ ישראל, even when they live a full life in years, they are not living a full life in meaning. A life outside ארץ ישראל is one that cannot contain the full weight of the ideas of כלל ישראל, being part of the nation of Israel, and cannot fully infuse the קדושה of ה' into the physicality of the world. Perhaps this is the part of life we mourn for one who dies outside Israel.

And so, מגילת רות becomes an admonition to us to connect to the concepts of שבועות.מגילת רות tells us to pay close attention to the lessons of the שתי הלחם, the ביכורים, and מתן תורה. שתי הלחם teaches us that life is only fully meaningful when we become part of the eternal, to כלל ישראל. The ביכורים teach us that the task of כלל ישראל, to infuse the secular with קדושה is only truly fulfilled in the land of Israel. And if we learn these lessons, and impress in our hearts the special, unique קדושה of ארץ ישראל, the only place we can truly marry the profane and holy, then we will be closer to the coming of the משיח, במהרה בימינו.