Our Spiritual Basket

In the United States there is a popular prize that appears frequently on many TV quiz shows and other similar competitions.  The winning contestant is given the opportunity to go on a ‘trolley dash’, meaning that he or she is given an empty trolley and a set amount of time and is then allowed free rein in a supermarket, toy store, clothing shop or other such retail outfit.  During that time, which is usually very short, the winner may place into his basket any product he desires, regardless of price.  The clever winner will carefully compile a list of his desired items beforehand and will also ensure that he has mapped out the best path around the store to allow himself maximum benefit from the time allotted.  The disorganized winner, however, will waste precious time accumulating unimportant and cheap goods.

Whatever you may feel about this unashamed contest of consumerism, it does provide us with the tools of understanding what our spiritual priorities should be.  This week’s parsha discusses an ancient form of the ‘trolley dash’, only in this case, the ‘winner’ was collecting the prize for someone else.  This ritual was known as the bringing of the first fruits (bikkurim) to the Temple, which was accompanied by a special reading by the farmer.  The Torah instructs the Nation prior to their entry into Israel (Devarim 26:1-11) that when they come into the land that Hashem has promised to their forefathers and have settled therein and worked the land, they are to bring from the first of their fruits to the Temple in a basket and present it to the Cohen on duty.  Once the Cohen has taken the basket from them, they are to recite a declaration of praise and thanks to Hashem for all of the goodness He has heaped upon them from the time of their ancestors till the present day.  Although this mitzvah can most definitely be understood in its literal sense and, indeed, the Mishna dedicates an entire Tractate (Tractate Bikkurim) to the procedure of bringing the bikkurim, nevertheless there is a much deeper intention behind the Torah’s words, as explained by the commentary of the Ohr Hachaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, Morocco, 1696-1743).

This great cabbalist explained that the Torah is hinting to another ‘ceremony’ that will happen at the end of our mortal life.  “It shall be when you come to the land which Hashem has promised you” – this is a reference to the world to come, “you shall take from the first of your fruits” – this refers to the choicest deeds you have performed in your life, “and place them into a basket” – that is to say, the deeds must comply with the laws of the Torah, as explained in the Talmud which is comprised of roughly 60 Tractates, the same numerical value as the Hebrew word for basket (teneh).

As we go through life, we accumulate ‘fruits’, which are automatically placed into our spiritual basket.  It is this ‘basket’ that we will present one day to our Creator.  We are given but one basket and a set amount of time, albeit an amount of time that is not revealed to us, and during that time the challenge is to accumulate worthwhile fruits and not rotten or unripe specimens.  Just as the intelligent winner of ‘trolley dash’ plans his route and his product choice, so too must we plan our route in life and determine which deeds are the most favourable and worthwhile, which are simple necessities and which are pointless distractions.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates the story of a young Yeshiva student who went for an interview at the renowned Novordok Yeshiva in Lithuania.  During his meeting with the Rosh Yeshiva, he displayed an unacceptable amount of self-assurance and perhaps even arrogance, prompting the great Rabbi to tell him that he was not yet ready to enter the doors of that famous bastion of ethical behaviour and deep Torah learning.  Dejected, he went to the town’s local shul and found it deserted, expect for a solitary figure, a young man, who was engrossed in a certain page of the Talmud.  The young man kept on saying, over and over “chatof v’achol, chatof v’ishtei” – “grab and eat, grab and drink!”  These words come from the Talmudic Tractate of Eruvin (54a) where the great sage Shmuel said to Rav Yehudah: “Grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world, which is passing us by, is like a wedding feast!”  Rashi explains that just as a wedding feast is soon over, so too is the life of a man, and therefore it behooves us to snatch as much as possible from the ‘buffet table’ before the evening is over and we are left as hungry as when we came in.  The mysterious figure was inculcating into his psyche that in this world there is no time to waste and that he should therefore make the most of his studies and dedicate his life to accumulating the choicest ‘fruits’ – mitzvoth and kind deeds.  Those words, repeated over and over again, made such an impression on the young Yeshiva student that he immediately returned to the Yeshiva and declared that this time he was ready to enter.  The young man in the shul turned out to be Rabbi Ya’acov Kanievsky, the famed Steipler Gaon (genius from Steipel), who later made aliyah to Israel, took up residence in Bnei Brak and became one of the twentieth century’s greatest rabbinic minds.

There is just more than a week until Rosh Hashanah, the great Day of Judgment.  Let’s make sure that when we stand before G-d and present our case, we have filled our baskets with only the finest fruits!

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Liebenberg