Parashat Ki Tavo – Keeping the Relationship Alive
How do we keep a relationship alive? It starts with not taking the other person for granted, with regularly appreciating what that other person gives to you, what he or she means to you. We must also give expression to them through our words and through our actions, so that these feelings become real for the other person and real for us. Another key component is sharing. Ongoing sharing connects you to the other person and makes them an integral part of your life. If you share the significant and insignificant moments in your life with this person, then he or she will become a part of all that you do, of all that you experience. In fact, a recent article in Psychology Today entitled "4 Ways to Keep Your Relationship Alive," reports that based on scientific findings, two of the key ways to sustain a relationship are exactly this: to cultivate gratitude and an to celebrate triumphs.
Thousands of years before Psychology Today, the Torah already informed us that these behaviors play a critical role in sustaining our relationship with God. Each year, we must bring our first fruits, the bikkurim, to the Temple. We gives these fruits to the Kohen and express our gratitude for all that God has given us: "And God brought us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the ground which the Lord has given me." (26:9-10). We articulate in word and in deed our gratitude. Significantly, this expression of thanks is not just about some recent act, that God has helped you with this year's produce. It is about the whole relationship, about everything God has done and will do for you: "We went down to Egypt and dwelled there few in number, and we became there a great and mighty nation… We called out to God, the God of our forefathers. and God heard our voice and God saw our suffering… and God took us out of Egypt… " (26:5-7). God has always been there for us, and God will always be there for us.
After we have given this gift, we share our joy with God: "And you will rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given you and your household, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner in your midst." Because we have connected to God, we have made God part of our story, part of our lives, God continues to be part of our story, part of our lives.
When we now partake of the bounty of the land, it will not just be a simple eating and satisfying our appetites, it will be a partaking of God's bounty, it will be a rejoicing in what we have received from God. And once the experience is shared with God, the nature of the experience is changed. If we are eating just our food, then we have worked for it and it all belongs to us. No one else deserves it. But if we are partaking of God's bounty, then this is something to be shared with all those God cares about, it is something to be shared with the poor, the hungry, and the stranger in our midst.
So it was in the time of the Temple. And not just the first fruits. We brought to the Temple, or to the Kohanim, a gift to God from all the material blessings that God had given us. From the fruit, not only were the first fruits each year brought to the Temple, but also the entire produce of the fourth year was brought to Jerusalem and eaten there in the presence of the Temple. From the animals, the first born was brought as a sacrifice, and the first sheerings of the sheep and portions from every slaughtered animal were given to the Kohanim. From the grain, the terumah was given to the Kohanim and when that grain was made into dough, into bread, the very staple of life, a special portion was given to the Kohen as well. The same can be said about the ma'aser, tithes from the grain. In some years, the ma'aser was brought up and eaten in Jerusalem in the presence of the Temple, and even the ma'aser which was given to the Levites and the poor are an expression of our relationship to God. For, as we have seen, once we experience our bounty as it truly is, a gift from God, we will share that bounty with others, with those who serve God and with those who are most in need.
In all that we did, God was thanked. In all that we did, God was a partner. But what about now? With no Temple, with none of these gifts, how do we continue to sustain the relationship? Part of the answer is ma'aser kesafim, tithing our income, a practice that started when the economy shifted from agriculture to commerce. While this is not a Biblical mitzvah, this practice embodies the principle that lies at the foundation of the ma'aser of grain, namely, not taking God for granted. By sharing our success with others, we are seeing God as the source of our material success, we give expression to this gratitude, and simultaneously reinforce this sense of appreciation.
But there is another day-to-day way which can help keep the relationship alive. It is the saying thank you for the small things. It is the making of blessings before and after we eat food. Blessings that say "Blessed are you, God, Who creates the fruit of the tree.". Blessings whereby we tell God, we tell ourselves, that we see this apple, this pear, this tomato as a wonderful gift from God, that we don't take it, or God, for granted.
This week, the Daf Yomi began learning the section of Berakhot that deals with the blessings before food. The Talmud suggests that the bringing of the fruit in the fourth year to Jerusalem and the praising of God that was a part of that experience. Making a blessing nowadays becomes our way of presenting our fruit and giving thanks to God. The fruit itself is not given, but then neither was the fourth year fruit given to the Kohen. It was eaten by the owner in the presence of the Temple, in God's presence, and this can become a reality for us as well when we make the blessing.
And perhaps something is given. We give our words, our blessing, to God. What is it that we are always told? It is not the gift that matters, it's the thought that counts. Sometimes we don't, or can't, give a gift. At those times what we can give is our words of gratitude, our words of appreciation. If heartfelt, such words mean so much more than a gift given devoid of feeling.
At the end of its discussion, the Talmud states that if one eats food without making the blessing,, he steals from God and from the Jewish People. Rashi explains that the stealing from God is not - as others understand - stealing the fruit which is God's property. Rather, it is the stealing of the blessing that is owed to God. When we withhold expressing our thanks, we not only fail to do something good, something positive. We actually do something harmful. We harm the other and we harm the relationship. Those words are a necessary part of what will keep this relationship going.
What does it mean in this context to steal from the Jewish People? Rashi explains further. It is to cause God to withhold God's blessing from our fruit and produce. The relationship is reciprocal. As we have seen with the first fruits, the cycle is clear. God blesses our work, we thank God in word and in deed, and then God continues to bless us and we continue to partake in God's blessing. When we do our part to sustain the relationship, God responds in kind. When we see it is God's blessing, when that is a part of the planting and the harvesting, when that is a part of the partaking and the sharing, then it will truly become God's blessing and God's blessing will continue to flow.
Our blessings, even if heartfelt, still fall short of the ideal. Appreciation is expressed, but there is nothing that parallels the recitation and historical recapping that accompanied the first fruits. There is no placing of this act in a larger narrative. There is no connecting of this to the story of our ongoing relationship with God. This is perhaps a function of exile. Without a Temple, without living in our own country, we do not live our lives in a society that structures and embodies our national and religious narrative. In exile, we are more on our own. We have to write our own personal narrative and bring that into our conversation and relationship with God. Those living in the State of Israel are blessed to live in a society that embodies our ongoing relationship with God. For the rest of us, we will continue to keep the relationship going with our small, daily expressions of gratitude until such a time when we can say "I declare before the Lord that I have come to the land which the Lord our God has sworn to our fathers to give to us."