BS”D By Briah Cahana September 5 2020
“What do you do when your prayers are answered?” This is a question my father asks frequently, wispily, his eyes elevated in mirth. It is a powerful framework to imagine our lives deeply entangled in dialogue with the Divine, Creator of the Universe, listening and responding to our deepest desires. It is also a question that is challenging in its own right in that it assumes prayer as the mode of expression of one’s innermost and that it has a real effect in this world. It claims that our desires put into words are potent and we are accountable for what we think and express. Perhaps for those of us who are more reticent to accepting these basic postulates we would rather first explore the mechanics of prayer or debate its efficacy in metaphysical or empirical terms. Even if we pray, we may not see that our prayers are answered. It may be too far-fetched.
But my father jumps to the believer’s paradigm where this is not only a possibility but a reality. Rather than focusing on G-d’s role in answering prayers and falling prey to unanswerable uncertainties, the individual here is center-stage, already on the other side, looking back, bridging the gap between past dreams with where they have arrived in awareness that G-d brought them there. It is important to stop and be grateful, joyful, ecstatic even in these moments. The immediate gratitude usually arises naturally. For example, when we are relieved of an ache or pain after being plagued or after succeeding in a project. All too often, though, once our desires are fulfilled and needs satisfied, the emotion doesn’t last. We carry on to the next problem to solve, the next desire to fill. The emotion is fleeting, rather than transformational.
So how does one develop this consciousness on a more sustained level? First, we must scan our lives and salvage all the factors that brought us to where we are– all the moments where we followed our dreams, felt blessed, our life or someone else’s has been spared, we forgave or were forgiven, we encountered the holy and awe within us and in others. Stringed moments like these imbue our existence with answers to our deepest prayers– that of the preciousness of our lives and our connection to the Source of All Life. But consciousness is not enough. We must transform the energy and magnitude of answered prayers into actions that in turn answer G-d’s prayer, G-d’s desire. But what is G-d’s desire?
In Parshat Ki Tavo, toward the end of the Israelite’s 40 year journey in the desert, Moses tells them that when they arrive in the land that Hashem is giving them they are to bring the first fruits of the land to the Temple. (Deut 26:1)
וְהָיָה, כִּי-תָבוֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה” אֱלֹקיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה…וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ–וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא
When you come (ki tavoh) to the land that the Lord your G-d gives you (noten lekha) for an inheritance… you shall take (velakakhta) the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring in (tavi) from the land that Hashem your G-d gives you (noten lakh) and you shall put it in a basket.
The first aspect to note is that the word Ki is used, “When you will enter the land.” It is future tense, but it is certain, not conditional. Just like my father’s question assumes certainty of prayers answered, this verse also speaks from that perspective. However, it is speaking from a place of anticipation, that this promise will be fulfilled in the near future. Additionally, this was a promise that was set into motion generations ago and it is this generation that will get to answer their ancestor’s prayers. Second, transactional words such as tavoh, tavi, noten, and lakakh are repeated throughout the first two sentences. After being on the move for so long and fulfilling the long-held Divine promise of entering the land, one might expect more words of joy and celebration rather than a description requiring more movement of bringing and taking and giving. But G-d is teaching through the Bikkurim (First fruit offering) (and the Maaser, tithing) that fulfilling the promise is not the end of the story, it’s truly only the beginning. G-d gives, the land gives and therefore the people also must give. That is the very first command they have upon entering the land. G-d brings the people to the land and therefore the people must bring the first fruit of the land to G-d and the temple, remembering how they arrived at this destiny as wanderers to “owners”. It’s a triangulated relationship of giving and mutual blessing.
One of the big fears expressed in the Torah about the Israelites entering the land is that in the land flowing with milk and honey they will forget where the blessing comes from and stray from the source of all life, G-d . They will think themselves to have earned the right to their station out of their own doing. With the emphasis on giving as the inaugural action, through the bikkurim for G-d and setting aside the tithes for the Levites, the stranger, the orphan and widow, the Torah is teaching that the only reason to have is to give. The only reason for our dreams to be fulfilled is so that we can spread blessing to others. As is expressed in the kabbalistic teachings of the Baal Hasulam, this behavior of giving likens us to our Creator. G-d is limitless and operates in the mode of giving, while humans by nature work from a place of desire and thus create vessels to receive light. But how does one create a vessel? He explains that this is done through the initial act of restricting ourselves through tzimzum; even before one has anything to give, one should be in a mindset of a giver. This idea can be seen in the very notion of bikkurim, where the very first of the fruits must be given away, even before you actually have any for yourself. That is acknowledging that everything belongs to G-d. The commandment to tithe acknowledges the responsibility we have to others in this world to spread G-d’s blessings. In Malakhi 3:6-10, there is an interesting exchange between G-d and the people, where G-d calls on the people to return to Him and then He will return to them. They ask, “But how are we to return?” And G-d answers through the tithes and offerings.
We are in a time of Elul, a time of returning to G-d, to our vulnerabilities, to our beloveds with purified intentions and open hearts. We are in a period of taking steps forward toward our dreams with fullness and trust that they are near. So, what do we do when our prayers are answered? We answer G-d’s prayers. We give generously, without reserve from the place of our light and joy. We believe in our ability to believe and trust G-d. May we enter a mindframe of when we enter the land, we will give in abundance, because blessings will come.
As the opening line in the Haftorah Isaiah 60:1 says so beautifully, קוּמִי אוֹרִי, כִּי בָא אוֹרֵךְ; וּכְבוֹד ה’, עָלַיִךְ זָרָח. “Arise, shine, for your light has dawned; The Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!”