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Andy Shapiro Katz-March 2012

Musings on Ki Tisa, Israel, and the Chagim

I write this Dvar Torah as Purim concludes and our collective attention turns toward Pesach. The Torah reading for the Shabbat following Purim is well-timed, as the sixth aliya of Ki Tisa instructs us regarding Chag HaMatzot, the Korban Pesach, Isur Chametz as well as the Bikkurim. It is a time of year when the vital Jewish juxtapositions become most potent - past and present, nature and history, linear and circular time. It challenges me to reflect about where I am, now that I am back in Israel.

Following completion of the Pardes Educators Program in 2003, my wife Emily and I spent two years in Atlanta and then five years in San Francisco. We returned to Israel in August 2010 to be part of a new community in Beer Sheva. We found a chevre and found work, and we continue to acclimate. We purchased a house in November 2011 and moved into it this past February.

We purchased the home from Ya’akov Shmueli, the 70-year-old original owner. Like the man with the almond tree in the famous Honi HaMe’agel story, he planted fruit trees in the garden – apple, pear, orange, peach, pomelo, grapefruit, clementine, pomegranate, olive, and fig. He planted the trees, but we will enjoy their fruit.

Ya’akov came to Israel in 1952 from Baghdad, where his father had been mukhtar of the Jewish community. In Ya’akov’s stories, life there seems idyllic, especially in comparison with the challenges his family faced in Israel. But in time they left the tent camps and Ya’akov became an electrician. He and his wife Esther raised very successful children: one is completing his PhD and another shuttles between Seattle and Israel as the head of a Microsoft engineering team.

Ya’akov takes pride in his legacy – both his children and his garden. Even now, after he has moved into a nearby apartment, he continues to instruct me on their care (scolding me only last week for trimming back the grapefruit tree). He left me all of the necessary tools and materials, and he insists on teaching me what to do with it all when the time comes.

It is a well-worn cliché, but when you live in Israel, the Jewish holidays make much more sense. From Tu B’Shvat to Purim new growth appears on the trees. From Purim to Pesach the trees begin to flower. From Pesach to Shavuot the flowers give way to fruit. And then from Shavuot to Sukkot the fruit matures and is harvested.

Tending the garden – his garden, my garden – has given me a greater appreciation for why yetziat mitzrayim took place in the spring. The period of slavery was like winter – the spark of life is there, but it lies dormant. The transition from winter to spring is not a smooth one. The weather gets warmer, and nature tries to wake up, but the winter comes back again, threatening to destroy the delicate buds. This is why there are multiple plagues, and why Pharaoh vacillates between freeing the Israelites and keeping them captive. But spring asserts itself more strongly, and the trees are free at last to blossom and grow.

But the flowers, as beautiful as they are, are but a part of the springtime process that yields fruit, the vessel for new life. So too Pesach and yetziat Mitzrayim come to their fruition with Shavuot and Matan Torah. But even then, the process is not complete. We are given fruit/Torah, but we must offer it back to HaShem. (Seen in this way, it is fitting that learning all night at a tikkun leil takes the place of bringing bikkurim).  And then as summer turns to fall we are supposed to dwell in sukkot, surrounded by God’s bounty, both literally and metaphorically, harvesting fruit/Torah so that it may nourish us through the inevitable winter.

Seeing this process at work in my own life, I understand that Ya'akov’s winter has led to my spring. My home, my family, and my community are all flowers that, if cared for properly, will yield fruit to surround me in summer and nourish me in winter. And so I take what Ya’akov and those of his generation have given me, both the raw materials and the instructions, and I humbly pray to be even half as successful.