Monday, September 12, 2011

Winning the Lottery / Ki Tavo

Leroy Fick was on food stamps. Still is. And that is despite the fact that last spring he won $2 million ($850,000 after taxes) in Michigan’s “Make Me Rich” lottery. Fick continued to use food stamps after he won the lottery. (In Michigan this is completely legal because eligibility is based on income but not assets. Rest assured that Michigan lawmakers are scrambling to close this loophole.) Fick believes he is entitled to continue to receive food stamps.

In parshat Ki Tavo, we find an unusual passage -- unusual for two reasons. The first reason is because it comes with instructions to recite it aloud (and indeed, we still do every year). The second reason is because of what the passage does, and does not, include in a 100-word summary of 440 years of Israelite history.
You shall then recite as follows before the Lord Your God: “My father [probably Jacob] was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers [Jacob’s clan] and sojourned there [400 years]; but there he became a great and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” You shall leave it before the Lord Your God [this is the first tithe, which went to the priests] and bow low before the Lord Your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty [this refers to the second tithe] that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Exodus 26:5-10)
This passage, known is Arami oveid avi (the first three words in Hebrew), is familiar to us because it is found in the Pesach haggadah and plays a central liturgical role in the seder. When the Sages (Mishnah Sotah 7:2, 3; also Bikkurim 3:7) discuss it alongside the very small number of Torah passages that are to be recited on one occasion or another, they tell us that Arami oveid avi must be recited -- verbatim and in Hebrew -- by each person bringing first fruits to the Temple. It’s a fairly long passage to memorize (except for you thespians who are so adept at memorization), so the Sages tell us that a prompter was available to help those who could not recite it by heart. Not surprisingly, needing a prompter was embarrassing, so the modus operandi was changed: everyone was prompted so as not to make distinction between those who could and those who could not.

Now please consider the content. Here’s what the passage includes:
  1. Jacob’s clan went down into Egypt.
  2. The Israelites were in Egypt 400 years.
  3. Jacob’s clan grew into a populous nation.
  4. Slavery and oppression.
  5. The people called out to God and God responded.
  6. God brought Israel out of Egypt, displaying enormous might.
  7. God brought Israel to the Promised Land.
  8. You must bring the first fruits of your harvest to God via the priests in a designated place.
  9. Bow before God.
  10. Party hardy in Jerusalem and enjoy the bounty of the Land. Include in your celebration all those who do not have a harvest of their own.

Most surprisingly, here’s what it doesn’t include:
  1. The redemption at the Reed Sea.
  2. The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
  3. The many, many experiences of the Israelites in the Wilderness during their 40 years there.
Why does Torah provide this compact summary of more than four centuries, yet leave out essential parts of the story? And why does Torah prescribe this seemingly incomplete summary to be recited aloud? I think that perhaps a hint of the answer to the second question is found in the first.

The Israelites are standing on the border of Eretz Yisrael, prepared to enter and take possession of the Land. Once settled, the very first thing they are to do is bring the very first fruits of their labor to God. A précis of the recitation might sound like this:
You went down into Egypt merely a clan, and were oppressed slaves for a long time. Through a stupendous show of might, God brought you up out of slavery in Egypt -- where you had nothing -- to this Land, which you will now possess. Be sure to do 2 things when the Land first yields its harvest to you: (1) thank God; (2) celebrate and enjoy, but be sure to include those who do not have what you have.
It seems to me that the recitation accomplishes two things. First, it establishes concretely the Israelites’ independence and self-sufficiency. Before, all depended on God. In the Wilderness, God fed them. Now they will work the Land to feed themselves. Now much depends on them. God has given them the tools to create a just and compassionate society, and is turning the reigns over to them. It’s important to get it right, and when they fail, to make a course correction.

The second purpose of the First Fruits Ceremony is to ward off a sense of entitlement. People who have never possessed much more than the clothes on their backs, and whose parents were slaves in Egypt, will soon possess land. They are about to win the lottery. How easily they could fall into thinking that God who sustained them in the Wilderness with manna, quail, and Miriam’s well, will continue to provide for them in a similar way because that’s how it works for Israel. The Israelites are not divinely or otherwise entitled to a bounteous harvest. It comes through their hard work.

At the same time, it is God who makes possible life and growth. When we give thanks to God, expressing appreciation for what we have, we come to realize that our lives are filled with blessings. And more: we are happier and more generous people. Sometimes the very best antidote to unhappiness and dissatisfaction is to quite literally count our blessings (try actually writing them down and see what happens!). Another wonderful antidote is to go out and do something for someone in need. Both antidotes work wonders. And that is precisely what the passage instructs. Take another look at verse 11:
And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty [this refers to the second tithe] that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household.
When the Israelites recite the First Fruits passage, they become mindful of their many blessings and experience gratitude. This leads them to rejoice and enjoy what they have produced thanks to God and with their own hands. But more, they share their blessings with those who are more in need than they, the strangers in their midst.

The First Fruits Recitation is an exercise in mandatory gratitude leading to joy and generosity. Pretty cool, no?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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