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Shavuot Feature (3): Torah’s Teachings Emphasize Jews’ Respect for Environment

On Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Torah, we also celebrate the offering of the first fruits in the Temple, the bikkurim.

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 fruits 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, wrinkled up fruit of the bikkurim, there could be no offering.

It is at this moment of offering that the Torah teaches us to recite the story of redemption, the same one we now read in the Passover Haggadah.

The story was also a garland, as it were, for the bikkurim offering, connecting our history to the very physical redemption of another spring and another growing season. These first fruits were a reminder, in a way, that society, civilization, culture, wealth and religion, are all built on a relationship to the earth.

The people who brought the offering were taught to trust in God’s love for the earth, praying, in the words of the Torah: “Look out from the sanctuary of your holiness, from the skies, and bless your people Israel and the earth which you gave us.”

The bikkurim make 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 Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism.

When God gives instructions to Noah for building the ark, Noah in commanded: “Tsohar ta’aseh latayvah/ Make an opening-of-light for the ark.”

In Hebrew, the word “tayvah” has the meaning of both “ark” and “word”. The Ba’al Shem Tov therefore taught us to read the verse this way: “Make an opening for light within every work 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.

Society shields us from famine, violence, disease. The economy 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 Pirke Avot says, “A person who is walking along repeating a teaching and interrupts his learning to say, `What a beautiful tree,’ deserves to lose his life.”

Outside of all this human activity lies what we call “nature,” form 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 Ba’al 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 form the depth of our being, we begin to see the beauty and holiness of creation within our words. When that happens, encountering a tree is no longer an interruption but a continuation of Torah.

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 is 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, when the walls that separate us from other creatures become too think, 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.

In a time when our contact with the non-human world may be limited to parks, gardening and natural disasters, how can open up to the full meaning of prayers and rituals like the bikkurim 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 are cut off from the source of our physical life, from the natural world, we must open our sense of caring and our culture 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. That which comes first, that which is still and small, like the Alef, or the bikkurim, 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 wee able to receive revelation. In the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “There is no place empty of the One.”

The infinitude of living things upon which our lives depend, the manifold changes and processes of Creation, all manifest God’s image. Our civilization is only one room in the ark of life which carries us through the cosmos unto God.

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