Look In to Act Out

Asking for help is not something that I am good at. As a 5th grader I remember having a huge project on the Civil War and everyone in the grade wanted to be in my group. No, not because I was so popular, but because they knew I’d do all the work. I would have preferred to get things done on my own, my way and my desired result. I’ve worked to learn how to share, reach out, delegate and lead. And leading up to the High Holidays, I almost crave assistance and community involvement. But in a bizarre twist, this time of year asks us for healthy selfishness. Looking inward, what did I do this year; what can I do differently; what was I great at and want to continue; or, who do I need to apologize to. Do I reach out? Or in?

One of the first verses in this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, caught my attention when fumbling over these thoughts of inner versus outer reach. The fourth verse:

וְלָ קַַ֧ ח  הַ כֹּה ֵ֛ ן  הַ טֶֶּ֖ נֶא  מִ יָדֶֶ֑ ָך  וְהִִ֨ נִיח֔ ֹו  לִ פְ נ ֵ֕ י  מִ זְבֶַּ֖ ח  יְהֹּוָָ֥ה  אֱֹלהֶֶֽ יָך
“and the Kohen will take the basket from your hand and he will place it before Adonai your God’s altar”

What is this all about? Sure the Kohen has ritual experience, but must a person delegate through him to get to God? The word lakakh is also deceivingly strong, it feels as though the Kohen grabs, rather than is given, the basket of first fruits to place before the altar.

Rashi explains that this was in order to wave the basket. The Kohen would place his hand under the basket below the owner’s hand which is actually holding the basket at the rim and in this position wave the basket over the altar with the owner. Rashi believes this is more collaborative than the verse says outright. Lovely, but is it accurate and is the collaboration even warranted? Should the owner of the basket be able to decide whether or not the Kohen participates in the ritual of giving the first fruits? Rashi is implying that the Kohen is acting like a teacher, guiding the person in the important ritual behavior. Chizkuni, even goes on to comment that the priest acts as the delegate to the King which in this case is God.

This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to be part of a Talmud Chabura. It was a class where we daily studied a portion of the Talmud and came together to discuss, argue and digest different pieces of ancient rabbinic discourse. It happened to be that the text chosen, Tractate Brakhot, was the same piece of learning that we did as a senior class in rabbinical school. There were moments where my learning this summer was infused with the memory of that class in school and yet moments that now, a year separate, became full of different meaning and applicability. One such passage that continued to resonate the words of our senior seminar teacher, Reb Mimi, during this summer’s learning was that of a story of suffering and affliction involving autobiographical encounters of our rabbis:

Rabbi Yochanan’s student, let’s call her Rabbi Schatz, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan entered to visit her and said: “Is your suffering dear to you – chavivin alekha yesurin? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted?”
Rabbi Schatz said to him: “I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward – la han v’la shakhran, as one who welcomes this suffering with love is rewarded.” Rabbi Yochanan said to her: “Give me your hand”
She gave him her hand and Rabbi Yochanan stood her up and restored her to health. Similarly, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill and another rabbi, let’s call her Rabbi Zari entered to visit him, and said to him: “Is
your suffering dear to you?” Rabbi Yochanan said to her: “I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward.” Rabbi Zari said to him: “Give me your hand.” He gave her his hand, and Rabbi Zari stood him
up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yochanan wait for Rabbi Zari to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, Rabbi Schatz, let Rabbi Yochanan stand himself up!

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot general free himself from prison, but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

It’s a powerful story, not only of delegation and asking for help, but of understanding the why of why we need each other. Rabbi Yochanan in the beginning of the story asks his student, do you desire to be ill and afflicted whereas later Rabbi Yochanan is not asked the same by his colleague. Often our teachers ask us questions they know we know the answer to so that we in turn see the power in our own decisions and understanding. Rabbi Yochanan was capable of standing up and empowering himself out of sickness, after all he did it for someone else. However, when dealing with his own pain and suffering, Rabbi Yochanan needed another to guide him out. It was not that he did not have the ability, it was lack of strength, clarity and ultimately desire. Reb Mimi taught us that this was one of the most theological examples of the rabbinate and of leadership. If in our own bubble, while doing what we are most comfortable and knowledgeable to do, we cannot see outside to let others in to help, guide and continue to teach we will never be saved or grow.

Sforno comments on the verse from Ki Tavo saying, the priest holds the basket to make plain by this gesture that these fruit are not really intended for the priest but are a present to God who in turn gives them back just as God does with other offerings. Simply put, the priest is a mediator showing that this is a gesture towards God, outside of ourselves, but that ultimately the fruits are returned to the people. We often need to be reminded that that which we do is not just for us but also to teach, model or affect others in our surroundings.

When doing things alone, I miss opportunities to learn from others’ experiences, advice and creativity. Often as a hostess, I clean up while others are mingling. My friend and rabbinical school roommate once said to me, “that’s when the fun happens, leave the dishes and we’ll do them later.” Though the idea of talking over a mess of dishes isn’t easy for me, she is right. Spending time with others, asking for help, utilizing the people around to affect my own personal journey and growth is much more important than just getting it all done.

During this Jewish month of Elul, many of us are burdened to distraction with preparations for the coming Holy Days. However, what if we could all just stop, know that it will happen, lean on others to support us and lift us up and realize that our best work alone is nowhere as good as the collaborative work of a community. We need to spend the month of Elul, even for just the few moments longer, focusing inward on how we can impact outward. Be collaborative. How do we take a counting, a full body scan, of our own soul while acknowledging and pointing to all those who make us who we are?

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