I love reading about the offering of first fruits; the full baskets and the recitation of our history from our very beginning are all old features of my fantasy life. I have a black thumb, so that my numerous attempts at growing things have always ended with a near silent whimper as my plants surrender to the Dark Angel. I picture myself putting the red string on the tree, and feel the renewal that a totally new crop "says" in its unmistakable language.
It's especially meaningful to read about this so close to Rosh Hashanah, when you begin your life again. The main thing about renewal is to let it occur without dismissing or rejecting the past. Open up your heart to see the countless positive and almost miraculous interventions you experienced this year. Most of the time, these end up buried under the weight of all of the unfulfilled dreams and misfortunes. You have to do real battle with the imagery that makes awfulizing so tempting. The real tzadikim stay focused. They face the challenges (and what could make them more vivid than the 98 curses that are recorded in the Parshah) and don't lose their faith or inner optimism. They see them as proof of G-d's commitment to us, and don't let their painful presence eclipse the rest of the picture. The Arizal points out that the 676 words of the curse, correspond to the 26 times Hashem's name (which equals 26 in gematria) appears in the Amidah (minus the blessing against the heretics, “vilamalshinim”, which was a later addition). 26 x 26, equals 676… Each curse is both counteracted, caused, and answered with the Name that conveys G-d's constant creativity and compassion.
Some of you may remember my neighbor, Leah Morgenstern. She was over a hundred when she passed, about three years ago. She loved when Neve girls dropped in to spend some time with her. There was so much unconditional love given out so freely! Some of the girls confided in her, not so much because they expected her to find solutions for their problems, or to help them work through their issues, but because they could count on her validating their emotions. She would often repeat the same stories (which at her age is not really so bad). What made them unique was that there were no "bad guys", and that the thread that ran through her stories always was one in which Hashem's compassion was a vivid image. One of her favorites was about gratitude.
When she and her husband married, keeping Shabbos in America was an awesome challenge. Her husband was happy to have a job, and when the job took them through the American depression in the 30s, it was even more treasured than it was before. He did manual work, and received a salary that was picayune even by the standards of the times. One day he returned from maariv with news that he could hardly contain. A rabbi had come, announcing that he was starting a yeshiva in their area, which up to that point was a spiritual Sahara. He had dreams for his sons, and this was the first time he could actually see them coming true. Almost as soon as he told her the news, his mood broke. The rabbi had come to appeal to the community for financial help. No matter how he manipulated the numbers, after he deducted rent, utilities and bus fair, even if they were to reduce the amount they spent on food, there was no way he could contribute more than $5. In those days, this sum was worth far more than it is now, but it wouldn't bring the rabbis plan much closer to fruition. "Don't worry", Leah said. "You'll be able to give him big money". How could she have made this sort of commitment? The one thing she was sure of is that somehow it would happen. She began by putting up signs at places where the neighborhood Jewish women would see them. Cohen's kosher butcher, Moishe's fish store and of course the mikveh. "Gala Party Saturday Night at the Morgensterns! A Melave Malka featuring delicious food, great music and lots of fun for one and all. Admission, 50 cents, all proceeds for the new Yeshiva ". She got her sisters in law in the act. They each had "specialties" ranging from Cole slaw to chopped liver. One of them played piano. They all wanted their sons to learn Torah, and they made it happen. The grand take was close to $50. For Leah, the moment she handed her husband he bag with all of the coins, was one of the most meaningful ones of her life. This did not end the story.
A young man came to their home. He introduced himself as the new Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor). "This is my first position", he confided and told that he will never forget how the money that they raised paid his first salary.
He didn't. The young man, who later became one of the greats of twentieth century Jewish life, Rav Scheinberg, never forgot them. He came to every wedding and Bar Mitzvah that they made in their multi-generational family.
The reason that I am telling you this story is that most of us would have been content to say a warm thank you, and then let the daily frustrations of life let them forget the sweetness of what real goodness is
Maharal says that the best way to come to love Hashem is to see His Face in the hearts and the soul of your fellow men. My own observation is that the people who I know who feel grateful for life itself are the happiest and most balanced of any to the repertoire of people I have come across. They have far more inner joy than people who have what most of us would call good fortune.
Have a good time reflecting, and let it take you to renewal and a desire to make the coming year the best one yet.
All the best,