Sammie makes Aliyah and a few years later he dies (naturally). At the gates of heaven, he is asked: “Sammie you were a good fellow all your life and you even chose to make Aliyah, so I offer you the freedom of choice for your final location: do you want to stay up here? Or go to hell?” Sammie replies: “well could I have a quick look first, and then decide?” He gets permission. He enters heaven: an angel drives him around in a comfy golf cart: everything is nice, calm and organized, the grass is evenly cut, people are waiting patiently at the bus stop, no smartphones, no Facebook, no garbage, pink flowers everywhere, Vivaldi four seasons background music in the elevator. Then he enters Hell, where the Devil drives him around in a red Porsche convertible: fast sport cars, Led Zeppelin on the radio, Beethoven in the elevator, free classes on Nietzsche. Sammie decides to go to Hell and oops, instead of in the driver’s seat of a Maserati, he finds himself in a boiling bucket with darkness, fire and screaming everywhere…Sammie cries out: “hey that’s not what you showed me!” The Devil responds: “My dear Sammie there is marketing and there is reality. Don’t you remember? You made Aliyah to Israel? Do you never learn?”
All (harsh) jokes aside, we often expect one thing, but then experience something else in the reality of day to day life. Those who have made Aliyah, may have moved here on initial feelings of idealism and yet, once regular life ensues – you take out the trash, deal with bureaucracy, get stuck in traffic, or try to buy fruit in the shuk, well, some of us who moved here may sometimes feel tricked or deceived. “That’s not how it looked through the Birthright programme” or “This is not what all our friends told us when they encouraged us to make Aliyah”.
When it comes to moving to Israel, the first verses of this week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, may offer us a hint: “when you come into the land [of Israel]…you shall take of the first of all the fruit (Bikkurim)…and you shall put [them] into a basket…”
In short, Bikkurim are the first fruits from the trees we plant in Israel, that we can’t eat, we can’t use for ourselves, rather, we must collect them and donate them to the Temple.
Imagine: after long wanderings and wars you finally arrive to a Promised Land and after working the land, planting and tending, when finally, the fruit grows, what does the law require? To give it away. How would that make you feel?
The Sages explain that Israel is not like other places. She is the Holy Land, where G-d “runs the world” with a directness unlike any other place on the planet. Therefore, different standards apply and one way to declare that you are OK with that is by being willing and able to give away what you think you need most.
However, there may be something more here – something very unusual in the verse…
- The fruits have to be collected into a “basket”. Why do we need to know what they are collected into? Isn’t it enough to just say ‘gather the first fruits and give them…’? The Hebrew word for basket is “Sal” (spelled as Samech and Lamed, סל). And that is also the word that the Torah uses everywhere. Well, almost everywhere. To be exact, everywhere except in this parshah: where “Sal” is for some reason changed into “Teneh”, which hints to us that something must be going on here.
- To make the point even stronger: if you look at the first 15 verses of the parshah which are discussing the first fruits, surprisingly there is one letter which is totally absent: the letter Samech, the first letter of “Sal”.
What is going on here? It is clear that the letter Samech is intentionally avoided. The word for basket “Sal” is deliberately changed into “Teneh” and although there are at least one thousand letters in the first 15 verses of our parsha, there is not one single Samech among them. The Torah is obviously trying to send us a message here. In order to decode that message, we have to understand what the letter Samech represents.
Every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a particular essence. One way we try to understand a letter’s essence is by looking at its form and the first place it appears in the Torah:
- Form: the letter Samech looks like “ס”, a closed circle.
- Interestingly, the first time we find the letter Samech in the Torah, it is also used to express the same idea: see in Genesis 2.10-11. “A river that ENCIRCLES (haSovev) the whole land.”
Thus, the essence of the letter Samech is a closed circle.
The closed circle of Samech represents a closed world. It may seem complete but, there is no place for an outside force (i.e., G-d) to enter in; it represents a world of self-sustainment and potential arrogance.
Your willingness to give away the first fruit, what is most dear to you, demonstrates the exact opposite of “Samech”: that you accept that you live in a Land where the fruit of your hand is dependent not solely on your own effort; there is a place for an outside force. Israel is not the world of the Samech, a world where I believe that only “MY strength and the power of MY hand, made me this great wealth” – as we read in Shoftim –, but you acknowledge that your efforts are actually derived from something much bigger than you.
And the message of the parshah for us today is the same as it was 3000 years ago:
If you want to come to the land of Israel (Aliyah), you have to be prepared: this is the Holy Land, the rules are different here. If you are not ready to give up your first fruits, read it as: If you can’t humble yourself and leave your “expectations” at home, then living in Israel will likely be difficult for you.
And for those who decide to stay at home, remember it may not be your HOME (yet), but it is still your HOMELAND.
Ps1: However, it is important to acknowledge the human-divine equilibrium as well, i.e., our responsibility to our Land. The tension of emunah (belief) and hishtadlut (effort) is well-known in Judaism. Bikkurim on the one hand, teaches us humility and to strengthen our “emunah”: the underlying assumption is that it is G-d who ultimately provides sustenance. On the other hand, we still have to make our own effort: as we had to work the land: prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and harvest the crops. Thus, when moving to Israel, we not only need to change our expectations but we also need to take on a new set of responsibilities to ‘be the change we want to see…’
Ps2: Those who like hidden-Kabbalistic-esoteric (etc) connections may enjoy the following extra: we saw that due to the avoidance of the Samech, the Hebrew word for basket was changed from Sal to Teneh. The gematria (numerical equivalent) of Teneh (טנא) is 9+50+1=60. And actually, that’s how the sages decided how much of your first fruit you have to give away: it is 1/60th of your harvest. Now, there was another 60 in the text above: can you find it? (hint: it’s the gematria of a circular letter ;-).