Friday, August 23, 2013

A Story Telling People: First Fruits and Prayer

In 1909 Sigmund Freud made his first and only visit to the United States.  He was to receive an honorary degree from Clark University and give five lectures on the topic of psychoanalysis.  This was the first official recognition of the young science and Freud later wrote that as he stepped up to the podium to deliver his lectures “it seemed like the realization of some incredible day-dream.”[1]
In the first of these five lectures Freud traced the origins of psychoanalysis to the work of his colleague, Dr. Josef Breuer.  In those days the patient who gave physicians a run for their money was the hysteric.  It was a perplexing disorder with a multitude of possible physical manifestations and no discernible physical cause.  Freud described how these patients would make their physicians feel: 
…all his knowledge—his training in anatomy, in physiology and in pathology—leaves him in the lurch when he is confronted by the details of hysterical phenomena.  He cannot understand hysteria, and in the face of it he is himself a layman.  This is not a pleasant situation for anyone who as a rule sets so much store by his knowledge.  So it comes about that hysterical patients forfeit his sympathy.  He regards them as people who are transgressing the laws of his science—like heretics in the eyes of the orthodox.  He attributes every kind of wickedness to them, accuses them of exaggeration, of deliberate deceit, of malingering.  And he punishes them by withdrawing his interest from them.
The hysterical patient had no voice.  She (most of the time it was a she) was on the fringes of society—she was unwanted, unheard. So what happened?
Freud continues:
Dr. Breuer’s attitude towards his patient deserved no such reproach.  He gave her both sympathy and interest, even though, to begin with, he did not know how to help her….Soon, moreover, his benevolent scrutiny showed him the means of bringing her a first installment of help.
So what was the great cure?  It was something so simple it is almost shocking.  Dr. Breuer listened—he let the patient speak.  The patient coined the name of the new treatment: “the talking cure.” 
It is remarkable that all of Freud’s contributions to psychology began with an act of empathy that gave an unwanted, disenfranchised woman her voice.  I shall return to this connection between empathy and the granting of speech.
Now, let us turn our attention to the first mitzvah of this week’s parasha: the mitzvah of Bikkurim—the bringing of the first fruit. 
Two commandments were involved in the bringing of the first fruit:  the bringing and a declaration.
One had to bring from the first fruits of the land of Israel in a basket to a Kohein stationed in the Temple.  
And then one had to make a special declaration while holding the basket and say:
'I declare this day before God your Lord that I have come into the land, that God swore unto our ancestors to give us.'
At this point the Kohein would take hold of the basket from beneath as the pilgrim held on to the edge of the basket and the pilgrim would read the following six verses—which, conveniently enough also serve as the central text of the haggadah:
My father was a wondering Aramean. He went down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and afflicted us, and put upon us difficult labor. We cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, saw our affliction, our burden, and our distress. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, awesome acts, signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I have brought the first fruits of the earth that you have given me God,'
After completing this recitation the basket was placed before the altar, the pilgrim prostrated himself and made his exit. 
The ceremony of Bikkurim is a culmination of a vast movement of history.  Many years of wandering and affliction led up to this momentous celebration in which the rejoicing pilgrim could stand upon the mountain of the Lord and bask in the light of His great blessings.
There is a fascinating and difficult to understand Midrash Tanchuma which states that when Moshe foresaw that the Holy One blessed is He would ultimately destroy the Temple in Jerusalem and that the mitzvah of Bikkurim would cease to be performed he arose and decreed that one must pray three times a day.  The Midrash explains: For prayer is more dear to the Holy One blessed is He than a hundred good deeds.  We see that when it was decreed upon Moshe that he would not enter the land he began to pray and he said, “Please, let me pass over and see the land…”  The Holy One blessed is He said to him, “It is enough, do not continue to speak of this matter…”  For this reason it is said (only a few verses after the Torah presents the mitzvah of Bikkurim):
This day, the Lord your G-d, commands you to do the statutes and laws, and you shall keep them with all your heart and all your soul.
“…with all your heart and all your soul” being an allusion to prayer.
This is a puzzling midrash. First and foremost: What is the connection between the mitzvah of Bikkurim and prayer?  Why, of all the commandments that would not be able to be performed without the Temple was Moshe so concerned about the cessation of Bikkurim? 
In 1972, more than 60 years after Freud gave his lectures at Clark University, Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, zeikher tzadik l’vrakha, delivered a lecture on Philosophy and the Origin of Prayer.  At the beginning of the lecture he made a provocative statement (that made the story about Freud come rushing back into my mind): that a slave is silent—he has no dignity, no voice.  Only the free man has a voice—to be free is to have a voice.  This is the idea which has made its imprint upon our liturgy as semikhat geulah leTefilla, that prayer must follow the blessing in which we reflect upon our redemption from Egypt.  Before we can rise with dignity before He who knows us most intimately we must first recount (and I would hazard: experience) redemption. 
The Rav goes on to define geulah, redemption, as (and I quote):
the shift from the historical periphery to the center—a silent people is transformed by the miraculous power of geulah into a talking, self-expressive people.  The slave has no story to tell.  His existence is non-history making.
            A free people are a story telling people.  Anyone who cares to listen can hear their story.
Thanks to the Rav I can risk an interpretation of this Midrash.  Bikkurim is a story telling event!  The bringing of the first fruits was the moment when we were finally able to rejoice in our freedom, enjoy the Land the Lord gave us and tell the story of our freedom! 
Moshe Rabbeinu, according to the midrash, did not want us to lose our voice.  Though we would lose our land, lose our Temple and lose our opportunity to proclaim our story upon bringing our first fruits to Jerusalem we would never lose our dignity completely—we would always retain our voice.  We would always be a story telling people.
In other words, the redemption from Egypt—even as we await the final redemption (it should come speedily in our days)—would always provide us with what we need to open our mouths in prayer before God.
But, we should not think that our redemption was only meant to give our people, Bnei Yisrael, a voice.  All of God’s ways are models for our own lives. 
Let us remember what begat Freud’s breakthroughs: an act of empathy which gave a woman on the periphery of society a voice and enabled her to live a life free from the tyranny of hysteria. 

Geula, redemption, is not only a historical event it is also a mitzvah incumbent upon each and every one of us: we must act with empathy toward our fellow man—to give those on the periphery a voice and a chance to tell their story.  Let us learn to act as redeemers.  After all: everyone has a story to tell.  
Notes
[1] See Editor's Note, p. xxviii, in Freud, Sigmund (1909) Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (1961).

4 comments:

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said...

Wonderful Yehuda.

Every Jew has his /her own story of Redemption to tell.

Avrohom said...

Where can I find this this lecture of the Rav printed?

Yehuda said...

Hi Avrohom,
After I wrote this derasha I found that the Rav did put this lecture in writing: Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah. Tradition, Volume 17, No. 2, Spring 1978. Here's a quote from the very beginning of that essay:
What is redemption?
Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community
from the periphery of history to its center.; or, to employ
a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To
be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity,
while movement toward the center renders the same entity history-
making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises:
What is meant by a history-making people or community? A
history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling,
communing free existence, while a non-history-making, nonhistory-
involved group leads a non-communing. and therefore
a silent, unfree existence.

Yehuda said...

By the way, Avrohom, feel free to contact me via email: yehuda1977@gmail.com