On Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, we also celebrate the offering of the first fruits in the Temple, the bikurim.
The offering was a supremely humble gesture: the fruits which form first on a tree are often smaller, less perfect, only hinting at the abundance to follow. In ancient Israel, these offerings were gussied up, surrounded by the more beautiful fruit which grew later, brought sometimes in gold baskets, accompanied by flutes, processions. All the trappings of art and wealth were used to beautify the offering. Yet without the small, perhaps wrinkled fruit of the bikurim, there could be no offering.
It was at this moment of offering that the Torah teaches us to recite the story of redemption, the same one we now read in our Passover haggadah. The story was also a garland, as it were, for the bikurim offering, connecting our history to the very physical redemption of another spring and another growing season.
These first fruits acted as a reminder that everything—society, civilization, culture, wealth, religion—are all built on a relationship to the earth. The people who brought the offering were taught to trust in God’s providential care for the earth, praying, in the words of the Torah: Hashkifah mime’on kodshekha “Look out from the sanctuary of your holiness, from the heavens, and bless your people Israel and the earth which you gave us…” (Deut. 26:15) The bikurim made a kind of opening for us to think about our relationship to the rest of life and creation.
I am reminded, when I think of this simple gesture, of a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. When God gives instructions to Noah for building the ark, Noah is commanded: Tsohar ta’aseh lateivah “Make a light-opening for the ark.” (Gen. 6:16) In Hebrew, the word teivah has the meaning of both “ark” and “word”. The Baal Shem Tov therefore taught us to read the verse this way: “Make an opening for light within every word you speak.” Open up each word and gesture — to meaning, to feeling, to the outside and unexpected.
Instead we create ghettos within ghettos. We act as though civilization were a self-enclosed system, sealed shut, like Noah’s ark, daubed everywhere with pitch. We act as though the economy, not the ecosystem, is what produces our food, fuel, wood, cloth, everything we need to live comfortably.
Even Torah can become a kind of ghetto, a book that looms so large before us it takes up the entire horizon. A mishnah in Pirkei Avot says, “A person who is walking along repeating a teaching and interrupts his learning to say, ‘What a beautiful tree,’ it’s as if he deserves to forfeit his life.”
Outside of all this human activity lies what we call “nature,” from which we extract our needs and into which we cast our waste. But are we really supposed to see only the words on the page, to hear only the sounds of human culture, and nothing else?
The Baal Shem Tov’s teaching continues: “Make your words shine, because in every letter there are worlds, souls, in every letter divinity.” If we really pray and learn from the depth of our being, we begin to see the beauty and holiness of creation within our words. When that happens, beholding a tree is no longer an interruption of one’s learning, but a continuation. That’s anyway the Chasidic interpretation of the controversial mishnah.
On Shavuot, we study all night in order to become open to how every word in the Torah shines with meaning. Similarly, the first fruits teach us to remember that in every being, every creature, every small piece of fruit and every stirring of life, there are also worlds, souls, and divinity.
If we only see the divine in ourselves, if we only appreciate human initiative and activity, then our words, our world, cannot be whole. When our civilization becomes a sealed-off room, a cheder atum, when the walls that separate us from other creatures become too thick, we ourselves cannot survive.
This is what the Torah says: “Make a light opening for the ark, and complete the ark from above.” One might have thought that a window diminishes a wall; after all, a hole makes a wall less complete. But an ark needs an opening which lets in light and sea air, which is, as it were, open to God’s care and nature’s storm, in order to be complete and life-sustaining.
“Make an opening…” to the elements, to the more-than-human world of nature, and complete it “from above”—to me this means: by opening to the world around us, we also make ourselves open to the divine, the more-than-human dimension of being and becoming that we call God.
In a time when our contact with the non-human world may be limited to parks, gardening and natural disasters, how can we open up to the full meaning of prayers and rituals like the bikurim offering, which are so connected to the earth? If we are cut off from other people, we must open our words, our language, toward them. Likewise, if we are cut off from the source of our physical life, from the natural world, we must actively open our culture and our sense of caring toward nature.
We learn the same lesson from the giving of the Torah itself. There is a midrash which teaches that Israel only heard the first letter of the first word of the ten commandments, which was Alef, the silent one, the first letter of Anokhi “I AM”; not the “I”, but the purest perfect silence, a miraculous silence open to all the possibilities of the universe.
That which comes first, that which is still and small, like the Alef, or the bikurim, is a place where we can find new meaning, and new wisdom. Only by making an opening to what is beyond the words, beyond human culture, are we able to receive revelation. This is one reason why Torah was given bamidbar “in the wilderness”.
If we invite God to look down on us, to bring blessing and revelation, on the holy day of Shavuot, we must look out, and look up, create openings in our world, holes in our ark, in order for the holy to get in. Facing global climate change, we are beginning to acknowledge as a civilization that we have to pay attention to more than ourselves. But if we take these teachings seriously, then the reasons for our attention are far deeper and broader than our own survival.
Our civilization is only one chamber in the ark of life which carries us through the cosmos unto God. The infinitude of living things, the nefesh-kol-chai, upon which our lives depend, the manifold changes and processes of Creation, all manifest the infinitely diverse faces of God’s image. All of these faces, the proverbial shiv’im panim which stands for all possibiliites, all teach us Torah.
May we be blessed to learn the Torah of life from the bikurim, from the fruits, and from all the species who are our fellow travellers, and may we learn from the Torah to share blessing with all creation.
P.S. If we can let the earth teach us Torah, we should also pray for the earth. Just as we pray after the Torah reading for our community, our country, for peace, and for Israel, here are some examples of prayers on neohasid.org that you daven alongside these prayers in your community.