Spiritual and Material Pain and Gain

The centerpiece of Parashat Ki Tavo is the section of the Rebuke (Toachacha) which details the suffering that could befall the Jewish nation if they would rebel against the Almighty.  One of the terrible misfortunes that it specifies is “you will plant a vineyard, but you will not render it profane.”  This is a reference to the lesser-known mitzvah of Kerem Revai, literally fourth year vineyard.  It is one of the many agricultural commandments that are reflective of the Jewish people’s connection to its land.  As described in Leviticus 19, a vineyard’s fourth year is the first opportunity that the owner can benefit from its fruits, but they have a unique restriction.  They must be imported to Jerusalem and may only be eaten within its walls.  Alternatively, the fruits can be exchanged for money (referred to by the verse as “profaning”) that must then be spent on food in Jerusalem.  The misfortune of “you will plant a vineyard, but you will not render it profane” means that we will not have the opportunity to travel to Jerusalem to buy food there (after transferring the special status of the fruits onto coins).  It is certainly painful to work the land and tend a fledgling vineyard for three years, all the while looking forward to finally benefiting from them in the fourth year and then suddenly being deprived of that benefit.  But what about after the fourth year?  Isn’t being deprived of the fifth year fruits worse?  It’s true that the fourth year is the first opportunity to benefit from the fruits of the new vineyard, but the benefit is limited by the Jerusalem restrictions detailed above.  Regarding the fifth year fruits, however, the owner is invested in them more, due to an additional year of work, and he would have been able to enjoy them even more than the fourth year fruits, in a complete, unfettered way.  The fifth year fruits can be eaten anywhere in the world.  The loss of fifth year fruits therefore seems more grave than the loss of fourth year fruits.  When admonishing the people with this prophetic warning, why did the Torah choose the less severe fruit/vineyard-loss instead of the more devastating one?

It seems that in truth being deprived of the fourth year fruits is actually worse because of the impact of the canceled trip to Jerusalem.  The purpose of the commandments that require taking fruits to Jerusalem is revealed elsewhere in the Torah – regarding the sister-law of fourth year fruits, Ma’aser Sheni the second tithe, in Deuteronomy 14.  There it says that the purpose of bringing the fruits to Jerusalem was so that the owner would have to spend additional time each year absorbing the holy atmosphere of the city.  A visit to Jerusalem of old was a spiritual experience with no contemporary parallel.  It was a city full of scholars and the daily Temple service.  To lose the fifth year fruits is tough.  All of that work for was for nothing.  The runway was wide open – you could eat them anywhere, sell them, or feed them to your livestock if you had wanted to.  Now they are all gone.  But to lose the opportunity for spiritual enhancement that comes with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is – or should be – even more devastating.  The message of the warning of the fourth year fruits is that sometimes we pretend our uniquely human capacity for spirituality isn’t there.  We live with the illusion that material satisfaction feels just as good as spiritual satisfaction and inspiration.  The calamitous prophesy of the fourth year fruits reminds us that just as a spiritual loss should be more painful than a material one, a material gain can’t compete with the spiritual.

 

This article appears in the September 22 2016 issue of the Jewish News.

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