First fruits and flow
June 14, 2016
A d'var Torah written for the second day of Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, for after the bikkurim / first fruits parade. I wound up speaking extemporaneously, but what I said more or less followed this outline.
When we enter into the land we are to bring the first fruits of our harvest to the place where God's presence dwells, teaches the Torah. After we affirm where we are, we recount how we got here. Our ancestors wandered into the land of Egypt, and in time were oppressed there. We cried out to God, and God heard our cries and brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and brought us to this very place, a land flowing with milk and honey.
When we enter into the land --
Today I don't think those words can mean only the land of Israel. They can't refer only to what happened then and there. That may be what they used to mean, but we learn in Pirkei Avot (as Rabbi David mentioned on Shabbat morning) that "every day a heavenly Voice issues forth from Mt. Horeb" -- the revelation of Torah is ongoing, and it's our obligation to find new ways to interpret so that the Voice continues to speak in ways that can be heard.
I like to think that "when we enter into the land" can mean the landscape of the human heart, the interior landscape in which we each find ourselves this year. The season is turning. What new doorway are you walking through as summer approaches?
Granted, I don't want to overlook the land on which we stand today, or to say that the pasuk is only about interior journeying. Whether you call this place Isabella Friedman, or Elat Chayyim, or Hazon, it is indeed a land of beauty and abundance. But most of us who experienced this morning's parade of first fruits did not grow or harvest in these fields, and did not tend to these flocks. This is a borrowed land of milk and honey, and while it is a perfect spot for a pilgrimage, we will all have to go home when Shavuot is over.
Of course, so did our Biblical ancestors. That's why these three great pilgrimage festivals are called regalim -- from regel, foot, because we traveled to get there, and then we traveled home again. We here today drove in cars or took trains or perhaps flew to get here, and "here" is northern Connecticut rather than Jerusalem, but in a deeper sense we are walking precisely in our ancestors' footsteps. At least as far as the pilgrimage part is concerned.
The first fruits of our harvest --
What harvest did each of us bring here today? The farmers from Adamah may have the most obvious answer, but I think that they too are bringing intangible offerings, as are we all.
That can't just mean the radishes we've grown or the goats we've reared. Of course those are first fruits, and they are beautiful. But the teaching has to be deeper than that. What about the fruits of your intellectual harvest, the ideas and teachings you've taken in and made your own? For those who are ending a school year soon, whether as students or as teachers, what thoughts can you harvest to offer on the altar? What about emotional harvest, the wisdom not of your mind but of your heart?
The place where God's presence dwells --
By now you can probably intuit what I'm going to say about that: God's presence may be extra-palpable here. We are in a beautiful place. We are in a place that has been sanctified by many retreats and pilgrimages. We join together in co-creating the container for the sacred space of this festival, and that makes this a holy place. Mah nora hamakom hazeh: how awesome is this place!
But the Presence is everywhere. Shechinah is everywhere. Havayah, the One Who accompanies us, is everywhere. God's presence dwells with us wherever we go.
How we got here --
Our ancestors wandered and struggled. We ourselves have wandered and struggled. We have known constriction and sorrow, tsuris, Mitzrayim, "the narrow place." It takes many forms: tight fiscal straits, painful situations, difficult or abusive relationships, depression, loss, grief.
Every one of us has been in these straits. Every one of us has cried out -- whether to that One we name as God, or to the universe, or to a loved one, or to the echoing silence -- pleading for life to be different. And hopefully every one of us has known what it is like to be lifted out of that place.
And even if we return to those narrow straits, maybe the fact of having been lifted up can sustain us, because we know that life won't always be narrow. That if we were lifted up once, we can be lifted up again.
A land flowing with milk and honey --
There are plenty of midrashic interpretations of this phrase, and I'm not going to talk about any of them. As a poet, here's what this phrase says to me. Milk is our first food in this life. It represents nourishment not only physical but also emotional and spiritual. It calls forth an image of God as Mother, the One in Whose womb all of creation is nurtured.
And honey -- honey is sweetness, plain and simple. Sweetness isn't an essential nutrient. The body doesn't need it in order to live. But our hearts and souls crave sweetness in the emotional and spiritual realms. We can survive without sweetness, but we yearn for more than mere survival.
And the milk and honey promised by Torah aren't merely present: they flow. When we give of ourselves freely, when we place our internal first fruits on the altar of the heart, we prime the pump for divine flow into our lives. We open our channels so that grace and abundance can flow into us and through us. When we give, we open ourselves to be able to receive.
May the coming summer be a season of milk, nurturing and nourishing. May it be a season of honey, the extra oomph that transforms life from livable to truly worth living. May it be a season of opening ourselves to divine flow. And may God's abundant blessing flow not only into us but also through us, so that we may be conduits for blessing, so that we may irrigate the thirsty world with compassion and with kindness and with peace.