A Midrash for Monday (#12)
I won’t say that there is more to share than usual. I will say that I am perceiving more so I can share more. We’ll start with a piece about the perhaps somewhat surprising preciousness of prayer and what adds to prayer’s strength.
“This very day God is commanding you to do” (Deuteronomy 26:16).
“Come. We will bow down and kneel—we will bend the knee to God Who has made us” (Psalms 95:6). Aren’t bowing and prostrating the same thing? So what does “we will bow and prostrate—we will bend the knee” mean? Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our master) foresaw that the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) would be destroyed and the bikurim (first-fruit offering) would no longer be brought.
To rectify that situation, he established that the Jews should daven (pray) three times a day. Why does this help? Because davening is more precious to God than all good deeds and all the Temple sacrifices. That’s what it says: “Take my davening as an incense-offering, my uplifted hands as an evening-gift” (Psalms 141:2). Not only that! When Moshe Rabbeinu was sentenced to remain outside the Holy Land, he didn’t do extra good works to overturn the sentence. He prayed. “’Please let me pass into the Land’ … [God responded,] ‘Don’t speak to Me any more about this subject’” (Deuteronomy 3:25–26).
What does the verse before “This very day God is commanding you to do” say? “Gaze down from Your sacred abode, from Heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the earth You have given us…” (v.15). With the power of a mitzvah, a basket of first-fruits, one can stand in the middle of the Temple courtyard and seek compassion for himself, the Jewish people and the Holy Land. He could say to God, “I’m not budging from here until You take care of my needs ‘this very day.’”
And a Heavenly echo would then respond, “As you have brought bikurim today, may you be privileged to bring them next year.”
Sit with this for awhile because the next section is quite different in tone and has a less happy ending.
“Moshe and the kohanim-Levites spoke to the entirety of the Jewish people. They said, ‘Pay attention and listen’” (Deuteronomy 27:9). The word the Torah uses for “pay attention,” haskeit, is rare. The Midrash relates to the word for wearing oneself out through grinding work. One has to be willing to study Torah even if it costs him his life.
Here’s the famous parable Rebbe Akiva gave to Papos son of Yehudah. The Greeks had decreed that it was forbidden for the Jews to study Torah. Anyone studying Torah would be put to death. Nonetheless, Rebbe Akiva and his colleagues continued to study. Papos was amazed. “By violating the king’s decree you’re putting your life in danger!” Rebbe Akiva replied:
A fox was walking along a river bank. He noticed that the fish were scurrying in the water, trying to find a hiding place. He called out to them, “Come out of the river to me. I’ll hide you in all sorts of nooks and crannies, and you won’t have to worry.” The fish responded, “You’re the one who they say is the cleverest of the animals? You’re a fool! Water is our only viable habitat, and you want us to climb out to dry land?! If where we live we are frightened, certainly we’ll be frightened in a place which spells our doom!”
“it’s identical to our situation. Our life is nothing but the Torah—“she is your life and length of days” (Deuteronomy 30:20). And you want us to risk our lives, by not studying?!” Shortly afterward, they were both captured and imprisoned. Papos said to Rebbe Akiva, “You are most fortunate because you were imprisoned for studying Torah. Woe unto Papos because he was imprisoned for trivialities.”
The Greeks took Rebbe Akiva out to be executed when it was time to say the Shema. While they raked his flesh with iron combs, Rebbe Akiva said the Shema.
It’s not for nothing that Moshe Rabbeinu himself suggested to God that Rebbe Akiva be the one to receive the Torah on behalf of the Jewish people.
Rendered from Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tavo ##1 and 2
© Copyright 2011 O. Bergman