Thursday, September 11, 2014

Basket Weaving 101 - Reflections on Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo, opens with a description of the ritual of the bikurim, the offering of the first fruits of the season to the priests. 

Briefly, here's how it goes down: the first, best clusters of grapes, the choicest olives, the fattest sheaves of wheat and barley, the plumpest pomegranates, dates and figs - all these are collected, thrown into a basket and taken to Jerusalem. Before the Temple priests, the citizen-farmer makes a grandiloquent declaration that broadly consists of two parts: (1) an awareness of the portent of the moment; that all of Jewish history reaches its apotheosis today in these, the fruits (literally) of our collective labor; and (2) that he, Old MacDonaldberg, has been scrupulous all year in observing Gcd's Law, especially as it relates to caring for the Levite, the needy, the disadvantaged in society. He then withdraws to the embrace and blessings of his family and the others whom his table supports.

But...what's with the basket? Did you catch the basket? We know that the Torah doesn't waste words, so why does it explicitly mention the basket? Why not bring the bikurim in any old box, crate, or wagon?

'Cause I'm thinkin''s really all about the basket.

First, the verbiage: the word for basket, טנא/'teneh' stands out as a fairly uncommon word in the Torah. Why use an obscure word in place of more common alternatives? (Things that make you go 'hmmm.')

Next, the Ba'al HaTurim points out that 'teneh' has a gematria** of 60. The modern Hebrew letter corresponding to 60 is 'samech', which is round, like the mouth of a basket. What's even cooler is that the ancient Hebrew samech sort of looks like a woven basket:
So let's weave a basket.

We begin with the node at the core of our metaphorical basket - that would be you. You are, naturally and properly, at the center of your own world. 

Projecting vertically from this core node is an axis that represents your relationship with Gcd above.

The first, innermost ring of weaving is your closest, most intimate earthly relationship  - your marriage. The next weave represents the relationship with your children. The next, your relationship with extended family. Then friends, co-workers, community, nation, world; something like this:

Unlike a real basket, in the metaphorical basket of relationships that constitutes our lives, the woven rings are in motion - constantly spinning around us, renewing themselves, expanding here, contracting there. All the relationships are in dynamic equilibrium in relation to the core; when one relationship spins out of control, it affects each of the other relationships as well.

And we can see graphically that the most fundamental relationship in our lives is between ourselves and Gcd. It is the central axis upon which all of our relationships revolve. If we're right with Gcd, all our other relationships can be healthy; but if our connection with Gcd is in trouble, no other healthy relationship is possible for long.

With this schema in mind, let's re-examine the  bikurim and the basket which contains them. 

The bringing of the bikurim is an act of gratitude to Gcd; small gifts to acknowledge the great gifts He has bestowed upon us. The Land of Israel. Our family's stake in the Land as an ancestral heritage. Our families, our health, our prosperity. All the goodness that is manifest in our lives.

No relationship can endure unless it is built upon the bedrock of thankfulness.The surest way to destroy any relationship is to focus on what's missing, what it lacks. 

For us Jews, thankfulness forms the center of our worldview. With every little act that we do, we make a brachah, whisper a prayer, say a thank you, amounting to hundreds of times a day. Thankfulness is embedded in our very name, Yehudi, Jew. It is a mindset in which we are in an almost constant dialogue of 'thank yous' with the A-lmighty. 

Thus, the first fruits must be delivered in the basket that represents our lives, constituted of the complex weave of relationships that define us. If you reread Deuteronomy 26 carefully, those relationships are all mentioned: self, spouse, family, community, nation. And, we declare, those relationships have been tended to and nurtured, no less than the bikurim offering itself.

Perhaps now we can understand why the bikurim must be brought in the basket. It's the fruit that protects the basket, not the other way around. 

Shabbat Shalom.

** Gematria is a Greek loan word from the same root that gives us the English word 'geometry'; basically, every Hebrew letter has a unique numerical value, and numerologists like the Ba'al HaTurim produce some amazing insights by comparing the number values of different words and phrases. But be forewarned: there are gematrias that will blow your mind, and others that are as weak as water.