Today I would like to tell you a story. It’s a true story that never happened. Once there was a man named Jim who had a wealthy and eccentric Uncle Max who passed away. Jim’s uncle was a prepper; underground bunker, months of food and water, fuel, weapons, the real deal. Among Max’s eccentricities was his refusal to use banks. He had literally millions of dollars in cash sitting in his vault, in the most defensible part of the bunker.
When Uncle Max passed Jim’s share of the inheritance was 1 million dollars cash. Now because I’m an expert at math, and also at using Google, I know that one million dollars in singles (that crazy Uncle Max) will weigh 2200 pounds. In this case, Jim had to take possession of 44 suitcases, each weighing 50 pounds. Of course when Jim drove up to the will reading, he went in his Honda Civic, meaning that he was only going to get 4 or 5 suitcases into the car on each shift. So Jim got to work lugging these suitcases from the bunker, up the stairs, through the passageway, through the house, down to the driveway, to fill the car, drive to town, go to the bank. Repeat. Finally after a long and exhausting day of schlepping Jim goes back to his hotel and calls his wife. She asks, how his day was.
Now we all know two types of people. (My rebbe says there are two types of people; people that divide the entire world into two types of people and people who don’t.) There are some who would see in this only blessing; $100,000,000 and all the possibility that comes with it. These people would be happy to talk with gratitude about Uncle Max and might be filled with hope for the future. And there are some who will answer with a long list of annoyances for the day. The bags were heavy, they didn’t all have wheels, the route to town is not well marked and he kept missing a left turn. And the aches in his shoulder and back! Oy! It was such a hard day! Can you imagine a person who just got a million dollars, and they still complain that the bags are too heavy?
Out Torah reading this week if filled with blessings and curses. A list of the good things that will come to the Jewish people if they keep the commandments and study the Torah diligently and with joy. And a long and terrible list of the most horrific things that will (and, oy, have) befall us if we are unfaithful. At the beginning of the list of blessings is a seemingly innocuous verse with a rather an enigmatic phrase.
וּבָ֧אוּ עָלֶ֛יךָ כָּל־הַבְּרָכ֥וֹת הָאֵ֖לֶּה וְהִשִּׂיגֻ֑ךָ כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֔ע בְּק֖וֹל ֥ה אֱ-לֹהֶֽיךָ:
And all of the blessings will come upon you and will reach you because you have listened to the voice of Hashem your G-d.
So here’s a classic dvar Torah style question for you – what is the meaning of the extra word וְהִשִּׂיגֻ֑ךָ “and will reach you”? Is the Torah hinting that there are blessings that could come to a person but don’t reach him? What would that mean? Could a person have blessings and not know it?
I think that the question essentially answers itself. Yes. Plenty of people have blessings but they don’t know it. They have a million dollars cash but complain about the weight of the bags. How many people do you know who have made themselves sick and injured keeping themselves healthy? How many people work to provide for a family they never have time to be with? Yes, people have blessings but they don’t realize it. Hashem’s promise is that we will have blessings and they will reach us – we will appreciate and understand the blessing.
I think that this is a true idea and I think that this is as good a place as any to put it, so I think the “vort” is worth keeping. Still, I think it only touches on a minuscule idea in a tremendously complex Torah reading.
The Torah reading this week seems to have two main parts. The first part is a description of the mitzvah of bikkurim, the first fruits being brought to the temple, and another related agricultural mitzvah. The second part is a list of blessings and curses.
The mitzvah of bikkurim (bringing the first fruit) is unique in several ways. The Mishnah describes the way the farmers would gather together in small groups, sleeping in town courtyards to publicize the trip to the temple. Upon entering Jerusalem there would be a parade, a full on musical band, close the stores to watch, clog up the traffic, singing and dancing parade, as the farmers brought these fruits to the temple. What is so important that this mitzvah merited such simcha? And why are we reading about bikkurim before Rosh Hashana?
The Talmud actually mandates that this parsha be read before Rosh Hashana but not because of bikkurim. It says we should read the curses to hint towards the idea of tichleh shana v’kililoseha, let the year and it’s curses be finished. It seems clear that the large section of curses that could (really, that have) befallen the Jews are the highlight of the Torah reading and they raise many deep and important theological questions. There is so much destruction that is predicted for the Jews in the klalos t, the curses section, that it leaves one a bit breathless, a bit awe struck.
The Torah describes a hopelessness and despair and hunger that is, thank G-d, totally outside my life experience. I can’t imagine the kind of hopelessness that is hinted at in these verses. My family once had a time in life where our dryer broke and we were having one problem after the other in getting it fixed or replaced, and at that same time both my daughters got lice and it’s endless laundry requirements, and for those couple of weeks it felt like our lives were falling apart. (My wife says, our lives didn’t just FEEL like they were falling apart . . .) I can’t imagine what life would actually be like in the face of the type of the desolation described in the Torah.
Perhaps in some other generation of great sages and holy souls that lived with the simple, pure faith of the shtetel people would walk away from the parsha and feel rededicated to Hashem’s service after a peek at all that misery. But to me, right now, it leaves me numb. Perhaps you as well. So what is the take away lesson for our generation from that parsha, and how can it help us prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana and the journey towards Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Simchat Torah? One more question, of all the mitzvoth to be a preamble to these blessings and curses, why bikkurim?
I suggest only a possibility – a thought that works for me when I feel overwhelmed by the world. I’m sure you know we face a lot of challenges. From the blood libels of the BDS movement to the hatred and violence our talmidim will soon face on campus, from the shidduch crisis to the tuition crisis, so many sick children, and so many families in need of help, there are a lot problems out there and I’m just one guy. We’re each just one person. And we have so much going on, how are we supposed to do anything to fix it? How do we look at this long list of misery and keep going? What is it that G-d wants from us? Only a prophet can really say, but I take comfort in a verse right in the middle of the horror.
תַּ֗חַת אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־עָבַ֨דְתָּ֙ אֶת־ה אֱ-לֹהֶ֔יךָ בְּשִׂמְחָ֖ה וּבְט֣וּב לֵבָ֑ב
Because you didn’t serve Hashem your G-d with joy and with gladness in your heart.
If the curses are a result of not serving with joy and gladness then I guess what is asked of us is service with joy. I know it might seem trite, but I think that this is what we have to do. We have to just keep going, do our best, serve with joy. There might be misery and problems we can’t fix. We have to do what we can but at the end of the day what is asked of us is not solutions, it’s just keep going. Engage in the work, find ways to contribute, do what you can, and serve with joy. Smile. Realize that you are doing what no one else can. I think this is the lesson of the bikkurim too. Maybe it looks like all you’re bringing is a small fig or a basket of grapes. Maybe it seems like not much. But to history, to Hashem, to the Jewish people, there is nothing more important. Bringing that fruit is a fulfillment of G-d’s divine promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A Jew, working in the land of Israel, recognizing his efforts are blessed by G-d is a fulfillment of the entire purpose of creation. It might look like something small to the farmer, but there is nothing more important to Hashem, to the entire people. That’s why it gets a parade. That’s why it’s the preamble to the klalos, the curses. The solution is for each of us to do that small thing we can, and to do it with joy. It might look like a small thing in this world, but to Hashem and to history it could sit at the pinnacle of creation.