Sunday, June 08, 2008

Yom Ha-bikkurim

We are about to celebrate Shavu'ot, and many of us will stay up all night learning Torah. Tomorrow we will hear the Ten Commandments in shul, and refer to the holiday in the Amida as "z'man mattan torateinu" - the time of the giving of the Torah. But if we look in the Torah shebikhtav, there is no mention of Shavu'ot as commemorating the giving of the Torah. Torah was supposed to be as fresh and new every day as the day it was given. And indeed, Shavu'ot is the only holiday that does not have a fixed date on the calendar. It is celebrated seven weeks after the second day of Pesah. Before the adoption of a fixed calendar in the fourth century C.E., each month had either 29 or 30 days depending on when witnesses saw the new moon in Jerusalem; one never knew in advance how many days a month would have. Depending on whether Nisan and Iyar had 29 or 30 days, Shavu'ot could come on the fifth, sixth or seventh of Sivan. The seventh is the day of Mattan Torah only according to R. Yosi, and the fifth is not the day according to anybody!
The holiday is charcacterized in Torah shebikhtav two ways: Shavu'ot, since it occurs seven weeks after Pesah, and Yom Ha-bikkurim, the day when the first of the wheat crop was brought up to the Beit Ha-mikdash and given to the Kohanim. The Mattan Torah angle apparently is post-exilic, a cultural accretion that developed when we no longer had a Beit Mikdash and therefore could not bring Bikkurim.
Shavu'ot is also referred to in the Mishna is Atzeret, a conclusion. Just as Sh'mini Atzeret is the conclusion of Sukkot, Shavu'ot is a conclusion of Pesah. We've all heard, and most of us will hear again tomorrow or the day after, drashot explaining that the purpose of yetzi'at Mitzraim was fulfilled with Mattan Torah seven weeks later. Freedom without law is not freedom but chaos. Without detracting from this explanation, I would like to offer an additional one. As slaves our lives were not our own; we did what our masters told us to do when they told us to do it. Even our food was dictated by our masters, who set a pot of food in front of us the way one would feed animals (see the commentaries on sir ha-basar, the fleshpots of Egypt). The fruits of our labor belonged not to us but to our oppressors. As free men, our lives would be very different. We would have our own country, work its soil, and enjoy its produce. The temptation to attribute our success to our own efforts - kohi v'otzem yadi (see Parshat Eikev) must have been strong. Therefore, we were commanded to take the first fruits of each year's crop, bring it up to the Beit Ha-mikdash, and recite a confession which became the basis of the Haggadah Shel Pesah [see the beginning of Parshat Ki-Tavo]. But the Haggadah stops in the middle, after the miraculous deliverance from Egypt. The remaining verses are not read at the Seder: And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. And now I brought the first fruits of the land that You, Hashem, gave me, and he [the one who brings the Bikkurim] shall leave it before Hashem your God and He shall bow down to Hashem your God. And he shall rejoice in all the good that Hashem your God gave you and your house. . . . Shavu'ot becomes the conclusion of Pesah, in that we confim our freedom by thanking Hashem for the privilege of working our soil and eating its produce, and acknowledge that our material success comes from Hashem! Is this the same people that developed a culture of parasitism where working for a living is denigrated and the ideal is to study Torah full time and live off the labor of others? If I had my druthers we would be reading Parshat Ha-bikkurim on Shavu'ot along with the Ten Commandments.

The Bikkurim were to be brought up in a basket, in Hebrew not the usual sal (as in kadursal, basketball), but a tene, a word that sounds Egyptian. A tene held things. It resembles a Latin root meaning "to hold," i.e. tenir in French. In English the word "tennis" originates from the racket that a tennis player holds in his hand, and Cold War defeatists told us that West Berlin was untenable, we couldn't hold onto it. I wonder if the Hebrew-Egyptian and Latin words are related, or if they simply resemble each other by accident. At any rate, in a good year the contents of a tene must have been heavy, and it had to be held in the hand at least the final few hundred meters to the Beit Ha-mikdash. Shavu'ot - Yom Ha-bikkurim was no holiday for Jewish weaklings!
Let us pray that we will soon celebrate Shavu'ot as we were commanded, as normal Jews in a normal country once did, with heavy baskets carried on strong Jewish shoulders to the rebuilt Beit Ha-mikdash, quickly and in our time.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Robert F. Kennedy (1922-1968)

Forty years ago yesterday (June 5), Robert F. (“Bobby”) Kennedy, Senator from New York, brother of the late President John F. Kennedy and himself a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination, was shot in the head shortly after winning the California primary. Despite frantic efforts to save him, he succumbed to his wounds shortly after 4:00 A.M. on June 6. New York time. Like his brother before, he was a charismatic leader who captured the imagination of the people. His murder, following closely on that of Martin Luther King two months before, shook the country to its core. Jewish Americans had more reason to mourn: The Senator was outspokenly supportive of Israel and the assassin was a Jordanian-Palestinian, Sirhan Sirhan, who acted on the first anniversary (on the civil calendar) of the outbreak of the Six Day War. He was tried, convicted, sentenced (on Yom Ha-atzmaut) to death in California’s gas chamber, and had his sentence commuted to life in prison when the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all death sentences up to that time. He remains in prison in California to this day. The only indication he ever gave of his motive was blurted out as he was being captured, “I did it for my country.”

Two days later his body was flown to New York, where he was eulogized at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by his one surviving brother, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy:
My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: “Some… see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.”

From New York he was carried by train to Washington, D.C. where he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery close to the grave of his brother, the late President. Thousands upon thousands came to each station to catch a glimpse of his casket. Photojournalist Paul Fusco took extensive pictures of the scenes that show America as it was forty years ago, and his work will be on exhibit at the Danziger Projects in Manhattan through the end of July.

The decade of the 1960s was a time when young people the world over dreamed things that never were and said why not. We dreamed of an end to apartheid, both here and in South Africa, the country that invented the word, and it happened. We dreamed of a world at peace and, for better or worse, brought about the end of the war in Vietnam. We dreamed of social and economic equality for women and, rightly or wrongly, today it is largely a reality. We Jews have a long history of dreaming things that never were and saying why not: At the turn of the previous century Theodore Herzl dreamed of the reestablishment of a Jewish State in Eretz Yisrael, which had not existed for nearly two millennia, and with the grace of God we turned the dream into reality. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda dreamed of the Hebrew language once more being on the lips of children, and that too is a reality, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. For nineteen years since the establishment of the State, when the Old City of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria were in enemy hands, Jews with vision dreamed of our heartland coming under Jewish control, and that too happened, with the Kotel being opened for Jewish worship on Shavu’ot of 5727 (1967 C.E.), exactly one week after its liberation by the Israel Defense Forces in the Six Day War. And then of course there is our ultimate dream, the final liberation of the Jewish people and the perfection of the world with the coming of Mashiah. May that too become reality in our time.

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