Posted on Thursday, September 3rd, 2009
The convert comes to Hillel and says 'I'll convert on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one leg.' Contrary to the usual reading, he wasn't being sarcastic or trite. He wanted to know, in a sense, the 'mission statement' of the Torah. He wanted to know that the Torah, which is utterly complex, is also utterly simple. What is the point of the Torah? And Hillel answers, 'Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.'
The entire Torah, then, is saturated with this lesson, even in the parshas that seem to deal with purely ritual issues, bein adam lamakom – between Man and G-d. And the truth is, this is not entirely obvioous, and it could have gone the other way, with 'love Hashem with all your heart' as the mission statement, and all the interpersonal aspects of the Torah are really facets of this one relationship. But Hillel would know, and he answered that question without missing a beat.
So when we look at this week's parsha, how are we to understand the Rite of the First Fruits as an expression of 'love your neighbor as yourself'? There are many answers to that question, but one that sticks out to me is the short paragraph that the Israelite would read upon delivering the first fruits – 'An Aramean (Lavan) tried to obliterate my father (Ya'akov), and he went down to Egypt...'
In saying so, I am not only acknowledging my own history, but that of every one else as well. We all have this pain at the core, of being pursued or attacked, of not being settled, of moving from one exile to another. Maybe none of us really feels safe, always wondering if the next Lavan, either personal or national, is waiting in ambush.
The first fruits were brought at Shavuot, the holiday that relives the giving of the Torah. What an auspicious time to contemplate my friend's needs, specifically at the time when the Torah is coming down. It is a key moment, when we position ourselves to receive the Torah, to receive it intentionally and in the right way. I want the Torah that teaches me how to love my neighbor. So this is a time to bring my compassion for others into my relationship with Hashem.
Rosh Hashanah has a dynamic of receiving the Torah as well. The shofar blow is meant to mimic the shofar-blow of Har Sinai. It is meant to open us up. And at the same time, the shofar is an exercise in listening not just to Hashem but to each other. On Rosh Hashana we are judged individually, but we are also judged together. A huge part of our judgment is how well we are tuning into each other's needs.
Hoping that this year we will strengthen our commitment not just to the Torah but to each other.
Filed in Torah Archives 5769