In my backyard, I have an Italian fig tree, a gift from my friend Stu. The leaves are just now beginning to grow, and that makes me in
a good mood. My father helped plant it, and I have tended to it carefully for years. The Torah instructs that one cannot eat fruit borne in the first three years of a tree’s life, and the fourth-year fruits can only be eaten in the city of Jerusalem. So I waited and watched my tree grow huge, beautiful leaves each summer. Each year, a few more figs appeared on the branches. But I couldn’t eat the figs… the anticipation was killing me!
Finally, at the end of last summer, it was harvest time! And what a harvest it was!
This reminds me of a story, told by the Lubavitcher Rebbe at a 1965 Farbrengen on the Shabbos of this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim. You can check out the original Yiddish here
, but I will type the story here in English, as translated by Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
It was at a time when he had not yet emerged publicly as the leader of the Chassidic movement. He still wore the cloak of anonymity as he traveled through the towns and villages of the Carpathians. It was one of his holy practices to ask every Jew he met — man and woman, the aged and the children — how they were, how business was, and so on. One of his greatest pleasures was to listen to the answers that each of them would give — answers that came from the heart. For they would reply with words of praise and thanks to G-d. Every answer would contain a “Thank G-d” or a “The L-rd be blessed.”
Once he reached a small township and began in his normal way to inquire after the welfare of the Jews he met, to get them to say words of praise and gratitude to G-d, to demonstrate their faith and merit. In the town there was a very old man, a great scholar, who lived in isolation from the affairs of the world. For more than fifty years he had sat and studied Torah day and night, detached and holy. He would sit and learn every day, wrapped in his Tallit and Tefillin until the afternoon service, and would not eat anything all day, until he had said the evening prayers, when he would have a little bread and water.
When the Baal Shem Tov entered his study, a room in one of the corners of the synagogue, he asked the old man about his health and welfare, but the man did not look up at the Baal Shem Tov, who was dressed in the clothes of a peasant. He repeated his question several times, until the sage became angry and gestured that he should leave the room. The Baal Shem Tov said, “Rabbi, why (as it were) do you not give G-d His livelihood?” When he heard this, the old man was completely confused. A peasant was standing in front of him and talking about G-d and the need to provide Him with a living!
The Baal Shem Tov read his thoughts and said: The Jewish people is sustained by the livelihood which G-d provides for them. But what sustains G-d, that He may continue, as it were, to “inhabit” the world? This is what King David meant when he wrote in Psalm 22, “You are Holy, who inhabits the praises of Israel.” “You” — that is, the Master of the Universe, “are Holy” — that is, You are apart from the world. What then is Your livelihood, that you are able to “inhabit” it? It is “the praises of Israel.” He is sustained by the praise and the gratitude to which Jews give voice, for their health and the sustenance with which He provides them. And because of these praises, He gives them children, health and food, in plenty.
** Now, why did the Baal Shem Tov take such issue with this sage? Is there something wrong with dedicating one’s life to Torah study?
The answer is that the purpose of creation is to make a dwelling place for G-d in this world. We are not meant to forsake the world into which we were born; rather, we are to recognize G-d’s role and presence even in the so-called mundane aspects of our life. Swearing off the obstacles and struggles of life and escaping to a world of seclusion, doesn’t help anyone — not even yourself.
By thanking G-d for food, money and health, this helps sanctify the body and our natural tendencies. By recognizing these as the gifts of G-d, one welcomes G-d into this “lowly world.”
A fig is a fig; or a fig can be sanctified.
It’s up to you.