Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Parashat Ki Tavo - O Taste and See


This week’s Parasha ends by tying together the major themes of the preceding several Parshiyot. Chapter 29 open with Moshe saying: (freely translating) “… you saw everything that G-d did before your eyes in the Land of Mizraim – to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to his entire land – the great trials that your eyes saw: these great signs and wonders. But G-d did not give you a mind to understand and eyes to see and ears to hear; not until this very day.”

The major theme running through the last several Parshiyot has been the role of the senses. Now Moshe has added the control factor of Mind – expressed in text by the Hebrew word Lev, Heart, which stands for the intellectual faculty, the reflective faculty. To the Buddhist science of Mind, there are six senses: Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, and Mind. It is Mind that gives meaning to all the other senses. A sensory input by itself means nothing. Sensory stimuli that process through the Mind come to mean very much indeed.

For the Buddhist, it is Mind that creates the world. Our world is entirely a product of our Mind – some would say, Of our Ignorance. In observance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and corresponding visit to America, let us remind ourselves that he stresses the wisdom of Buddhist science in the abstract: not as a means to draw others into Buddhism, but as a set of tools for enhancing our own way of life. For us Jews, the Buddhist Science of Mind yields fruitful insights. But the cosmos of the Buddhists is uncreated, with neither end nor beginning. For us, the Torah makes it explicit that the world is not merely created one time, but is sustained through G-d’s continuous act of Creation.

Which we ought not to forget.

Indeed, Moshe himself might find the Buddhist approach useful. After all, while we know the Cosmos to be the handiwork of the Creator, it is nonetheless obvious that our own private Worlds are largely the result of Ignorance and Disorganized Thought.

Now that we have been admonished repeatedly to beware relying overly on our own perceptions, what message does this Parasha bring? In what way does Parashat Ki Tavo tie it all together? For this is the last part of Moshe’s narrative. The next Parasha, Nitzavim, takes place on the last day of Moshe’s life. Thus, it is in our Parasha that we must look for a final message. We should, if we have been reading this narrative closely, expect to find some Culminating Message, some Bringing It All Together. Some philosophical synthesis of the notions and images that have carried the text hurtling forward since the beginning of Sefer Devarim.

We shall not be disappointed.

This final book of Chumash continually focuses its attention on our own sensory perceptions, our own thought processes. It is something of a User’s Manual to the rest of Torah. Again: Bereshit masterfully sets the scene, draws us in, makes of this book the family and personal narrative of each of us and thereby prompts us to take up the way of life, the philosophical stances, the moral attitudes promulgated in the central three books. Finally, by presenting itself as Moshe’s own interpretation, Sefer Devarim shows us a hands-on approach to living by Torah.

Last week’s Parasha ended with an admonition to remember, and not to forget. This week’s Parasha opens with a formula and a ritual practice that enforces our national act of remembering. In the retelling of the Exodus from Mizraim, and in the obligation to bring the Bikkurim – the First Fruits – in annual pilgrimage, we are not merely reminded to remember; we are also told explicitly how to perform the act of remembrance. And that the Fact of remembering is not sufficient, without the Act of remembering. We do not rely on Kavannah without Practice.

In fact, this week’s Parasha ends with a powerful poetic image of us returning to Mizraim in despair. At 28:60 we are told that G-d will bring back upon us all the sufferings of Mizraim. Not the sufferings endured by the Egyptians, but our own experience of suffering in Mizraim. Which is the suffering of Forgetting. In Mizraim, we forgot who we were, we forgot our relationship with G-d. Finally, our devastation and forgetting was so complete, it set the stage for G-d to become involved directly. “Paqod yifqod Elokim etchem…” says Yosef to his brothers: “G-d will surely intervene in your affairs.” The Hebrew word PQD is incredibly rich in meanings and has the sense of G-d becoming directly involved in human affairs when no one else will, thereby changing, or creating, the course of history.

We are to Remember. That may be the final and fundamental message that Moshe leaves us with before closing his narrative. Remember. Just this much: Always remember.

You have seen, says Moshe at the end of the Parasha, but you have not understood. And then he makes an odd statement at 29:5: “You did not eat bread, and you did not drink wine nor strong drink…”

To whom is Moshe saying these words? Here, on the eve of our entry into the Land, there are three people who remember Mizraim: Moshe, Yehoshua, and Caleb. The rest were all born in the Midbar. The rest – with the exception of Moshe, Yehoshua and Caleb – were raised on the Manna. In fact, it may be a true statement when in verse 5, Moshe says “You did not eat bread.”

The first taste of milk on the tongue of the newborn creates a lifelong bond. The milk that feeds us in our first days and months also binds us forever to our caregivers – in Moshe’s case, fortunately, it was his own mother. Yet, as time passes, we begin to burn, to urgently yearn for other experiences.

I remember my own infant son, who had his first taste of solid food at age six months. The urgency with which he strained towards the spoon, the trembling expectation as his tongue reached for his first taste of applesauce. The blissful aftermath as he lay back and not merely digested, but meditatively reflected on the experience of devouring a mash made of one-half of a baked apple.

When Moshe commands the People to bring the First Fruits to G-d, he is not only referring to the first of the annual crop. Taking the imagery of the Parasha to its poetic extreme: The fruits we taste in Eretz Israel will be, in fact, the First Fruits we come upon. Having been born in the Midbar, we were raised on Manna – it was mother’s milk to us. Now, like a child about to experience new tastes, new textures – about to experience directly what we have only known as the smells and colors of food – we tremble with excitement. We can not wait to taste these fruits. To make them part of our own experience.

Every wisdom tradition knows the danger of becoming enamored of the spiritual experience. Among all the other messages of this immensely important Parasha, Moshe is telling us something profound, something wise. Something eternal.

Do not take the taste of the fruit, the experience of tasting these foods for the first time, to be the norm. Spiritual experience comes, not in Spiritual Experiences, but in maintaining a sense of complete openness. We experience a set of feelings with the performance of an act. Once, and once only, do we have the flood of uplifting and expanding and mind-altering sensations that comes with a new spiritual experience. Our tendency is to expect that, each time we repeat the actions, we will experience the same set of feelings, sensations. The same elation. The same expansiveness. And when we do not, we believe there is something wrong with us. Or perhaps, that the experience itself is not genuine. Or that there is something flawed in the way the experience is taught to us.

Either we are at fault, or our Practice is at fault, or out Teacher is at fault.

Moshe says: do not think this way. This is the way most people think. The Torah is not an Experience. It is a way of life. The Halacha is not an Experience. It is a way to enter into dialogue with G-d, speaking G-d’s own language. Prayer is not an Experience. It is a way to isolate ourselves with our own selves, to enfold ourselves in G-d as in an embrace. To try to open the channel heart-to-heart, one-to-one. To come as close to G-d as is possible for a human being.

Remember this, Moshe is saying. You have seen, but you have not understood. Now, going forward, you must strive to understand, even if you do not comprehend. And understanding comes from Remembering. From Remembering our place in the Cosmos. From remembering our relationship with G-d. From remembering the primacy of Torah, even – or especially – in the midst of spiritual confusion. When Middot – Good Qualities – fail us, there is always the Halacha.

Give up your Experiences, says Moshe. Make of them, not gifts for yourselves. Make of them rather gifts for G-d. If we take the fruits and eat them ourselves, what will happen when we are disappointed by taste or texture? Is that not when we challenge G-d? Is that not when we say: G-d, you led me to have an expectation, and you are responsible to me for making up my loss.

The expectation of Reward is its own greatest Punishment.

In Pirkei Avot, we are reminded that we were given the greatest gift of all, in being created in the Image of G-d. And that we were then given a greater gift still, in that it was made known to us that we were created in the Image of G-d.

And now, on top of this, we demand that G-d give us a transcendent experience each time we Daven?

It is, literally, the Oldest Story in the Book. Bereshit 4:7: “Is it not so that, if you better yourself, you will be uplifted / accepted?...” The first offering in human history results in a tragedy, because the one bringing the offering does not do it li-shmah – For Its Own Sake – but in hope of acceptance.

It does not matter, says Moshe, whether G-d visibly accepts your offering. This is the offering of Klal Israel, brought in a large mass of people. Brought to the Cohen who happens to be officiating at the time, and not to a particular person with special qualifications of holiness or spiritual excellence.

One of the first years I davened with Shlomo Carlebach on Simhat Torah, he told over the story of Cain and Hevel. He told of the tragedy that arises when people think of their own outcome, and not of the outcome of their own brother. Shlomo said that Cain had the amazing opportunity to bless G-d. The opportunity to express gratitude that he, Cain, was worthy to be born the brother of one whose offering was accepted. Instead, he saw only G-d on the other side of the room enjoying a plate of steaming meat.

Here, finally, Cain and Hevel are reconciled. Here it is that we provide Cain with the redemption G-d promised him. The First Fruits will be brought – the offering of Cain. When we all bring them together, acting as Klal Israel, they are accepted. When we all bring them li-shmah, because it is the action we are set to perform, rather than for the spiritual uplift we expect to experience, they are accepted.

The suffering of Mizraim is Forgetting. When we act as one, making ourselves available for others to rely on, and not expecting or looking for reward – this is when we Remember who and what we are.

Remember, Moshe is saying – and do not Forget. Recite the formulas, perform the Actions. Sometimes you will feel uplifted – ha-lo im teteiv se’et? – sometimes others will feel uplifted. We have lived long enough in Exile. Let us now begin the ages-long process of Remembering, just this, of merely remembering who we are.

Let the Redemption begin.

Yours for a better world.


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