IT'S ALL A GAME
Rabbi David Walk
During my latest trip to Israel, I spent a lot of time in the Shomron. My daughter lives there with her husband and three kids in a hill top community outside Beit El called Givat Asaf. This isn't very far from the site of one of the dramatic events described in this week's Torah reading. The parsha describes two ceremonies. The first was an annual affair, bringing first fruits to the Temple. The second was a one-time extravaganza, the covenant on Mount Eival and Mount Gerizim. I think that they share a lot in common, but that's for later. A few weeks ago I referred to that singular event in a piece about seeing and hearing. The premise, based on a wonderful article by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, was that Judaism is primarily a listening religion and seeing reinforces the heard messages of our faith. Another daughter, this one living in Tekoa the home of Amos the prophet on the edge of the Judean desert, took me to task for that piece. She wrote me that it was a 'galuty' approach. I had never seen that word 'galuty' before, but I knew exactly what she meant and I was abashed. It comes from the Hebrew word galut, meaning exile. She meant that preferring audio to video works in the Diaspora where our spiritual sensors are blunted, but not in the Holy Land, where seeing is believing. When you stand outside their homes, the craggy vistas allow you to see the Bible in ways our hearing the Bible can't compete. Awesome!
As mentioned there are two major observances described in our parsha. The first is bikurim or the offering of first fruits. This rite is the focus of Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340), because every week he presents a verse from Proverbs as the quintessence of that week's Torah reading. This week's quote: Honor God with everything you own; give Him the first and the best. Your barns will burst, your wine vats will brim over (Proverbs 3:9-10). Rabbeinu Bechaye goes on to explain that we must learn the trait of bitachon or trust in God, because giving our best won't impoverish us. On the contrary, sharing our bounty brings us blessings. In other words, the ultimate reward for this spiritual largesse far outweighs the loss incurred by any contribution that we may have given. What a great opening to pitching for a donation! But I will resist that clergy temptation. Before I begin my explanation of this phenomenon, allow me one big caveat. This is not magic!! We are not tele-clergy shilling for our viewers' last dime in return for a miracle cure or salvation. That is vile. This is a promise that in Israel if you share your bounty with God and the needy, your future efforts will be blessed with abundance. In Judaism we ask for God's support for our honest sweat and struggle. We don't believe in something for nothing.
But what is this idea that if I give away my wealth I can somehow financially benefit? I can understand if we're talking about emotional gain like warm fuzzies, but the verse and Rabbeinu Bechaye are talking tangible assets. Well, this brings us to Game Theory or what psychologists call the theory of social situations. Without going into the math or the many examples, these theories show a measurable and significant societal advantage to people behaving in an altruistic manner. It's true that if everyone behaves in a caring manner the world would really be a better place, and that includes economically. In Israel, until recently, if vendors didn't have a product, they claimed that the item wasn't available. They didn't want you going to a competitor. However, here in the States I've often experienced the opposite. A vendor informs you that a certain other store may carry the item. The good will generated by that kind of assistance often brings the customer back. It's worked with me. Now, obviously this is complicated and can get tricky, but the old assertion that altruism is a sucker's game is no longer accepted. It often is literally true that the giver is blessed.
Perhaps that's part of the message of all the agricultural gifts which the Torah demands from us and in return our barns will burst and our wine vats brim over. We are being taught that we can statistically witness the benefits of these altruistic efforts both personally and communally. There's no magic. There's hard work, cooperation, good will, and a little blessing from God. But we'll work harder if we see positive results.
This brings us to the other ceremony. The great covenant on the hills of Gerizim and Eival, I think were about the same topic. Look at the eleven behaviors which were condemned: moving boundary markers, misguiding the blind, perverting justice, striking another in private and bribing a judge. These are all secret acts done to achieve competitive advantage over others. These are anti-altruism performances. We must condemn this behavior not only because it's nasty, but because the short term gain will eventually be offset by the eventual ruin of society. It's almost like the first rite is teaching us to be altruistic, and the second ritual declares that the greedy will be cursed. Two sides of the same coin.
In the Diaspora we accept the teachings that all this is true. We have heard from our teachers and rabbis that this is God's way and we will eventually witness it in some far off future. But in Israel, we see it first hand and daily. Israel is a society with problems, but the agricultural and economic miracles can't be denied. First this desolate land worked hard to feed itself and then became the start up king of the world. The amazing labor and sacrifice have borne fruit. It's wonderful to sit here and tell you about it, but it's so much better to go there and see it. Israel, where seeing is believing.
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