From the Rabbi

Devar Torah - Ekev

Tot Shabbat continues this week. It’s been a lot of fun and very popular. If you have a child or grandchild between 1 and 4, bring them along for the 10.30 start. On Sunday evening I will be giving the Pre-Rosh Hashanah Class for FIGS (Friends in The Great Synagogue) everyone is welcome, and we will be learning about Psalm 27, which we read twice a day between the first of Ellul and the end of Succot.

One of the annual offerings a farmer would bring to the Temple was the Bikkurim, the First Fruits described in this week’s parasha. First Fruits were only offered from the Seven Species of the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives, and dates. Although we do not bring these offerings today, in the absence of a Temple, they do retain a special status. On Tu BiShvat, the New Year for Trees there is a Kabbalistic custom to hold a special Seder, where these species are eaten, with special readings. Whenever we eat these species there is a special blessing, which we recite afterwards, as a shorter version of the Grace after Meals we say after eating bread.

That blessing expresses thanks to God ‘for the produce of the field, and for the precious, good, and spacious land which You have graciously given as a heritage to our ancestors, to eat of its fruit and to be satiated with its goodness.’ Thus, we experience the goodness the Land produces and then we bless God for it. As a verse elsewhere in the parasha states ‘and you shall eat, and be satisfied, and bless’. Just as Isaac asked Esau to bring him venison before he blessed him, so too we experience physical benefit before we bless God for making that benefit possible.

Perhaps it would reflect a higher religious state if we could offer blessings without first enjoying physical pleasure, but I think that misses the point. Judaism does not want to divorce the physical and the spiritual, but to infuse each with the other. We celebrate festivals by eating meat and drinking wine. In biblical terms, there is only fast each year, and that is Yom Kippur, when we transcend human constraints entirely. For the most part we are no expected to be more than human, but being as good as we can be, in our human terms.

Our ability to make a physical pleasure such as a eating a force for spirituality, or just for self-indulgence is summed up by Rabbi Shimon in the Ethics of the Fathers: ‘Three who eat at one table and do not speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten of idolatrous sacrifices…But three who eat at one table and speak words of Torah, it is as if they have eaten at God's table’. Let’s all strive to eat at God’s table!

Shabbat shalom!