A shnorer (a professional Jewish fund-raiser) rings the bell of a banker's home at 6 a.m., claiming it is an emergency. The banker hurries to the door to find the shnorer asking for a donation.
"How dare you wake me up at this time!" yelled the banker.
The shnorer responds: "Mr. Banker, listen to me. I don't tell you when to begin working in the morning, so please don't tell me when I am to begin working in the morning."
Good Days and Bad Days
Most of us routinely experience two types of days: good ones and disappointing ones. The good days are filled with confidence, clarity and purpose. On such days we approach our struggles with an elevated attitude and view challenges as an opportunity for growth.
On other days, however, we are overtaken by insecurity, doubt and a sense of emptiness. We don't feel content with our place in the world and lack the motivation to move on with our responsibilities and make a difference in our world.
What is it that bestows upon one day a magical beauty, while another day -- identical more or less in its schedule and events -- is meaningless and depressing?
The Kabbalah (1) attributes our fluctuating moods to the fact that we each possess two contrasting forces within our consciousness: one is selfish, insecure and confused; the other is full of light, clarity and idealism. In the writings of Chassidism these two polar forces are defined as the ego vs. the soul, or the beastly consciousness vs. the transcendent spirit.
Yet while the sense of ego and the beastly identity come naturally to us, our G-dliness lies deep within our psyche and some tilling is required to bring it to the fore of our consciousness. Show me a day that you are in touch with your higher self, and I will show you a full and fulfilled day.
But here again, one wonders why it is that on some days we manage to connect with our soul, while on others we remain tied down by our beast, burdened by our own mediocrity? What is the secret recipe to a day filled with depth and meaning?
The First Fruit Ritual
One of the interesting Torah laws pertaining to Jewish farmers and read in the synagogue on this Sabbath in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is known as the law of the "first fruits," or in Hebrew, the mitzvah of Bikkurim (2).
After the Jewish people settled the land of Israel, farmers were obligated to bring to the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) in Jerusalem a basket of the first ripened fruits of their fields. In a ritual that included a moving declaration of gratitude to G-d, the Source of life and sustenance, the farmer would present the fresh fruits as a gift to the Kohanim (the Priests) serving in the Temple.
Though this mitzvah in its literal form cannot be performed today since it requires a standing Temple in Jerusalem, its spiritual message contains timeless applications.
Indeed, the Midrash relates (3) that since Moses realized that the Temple ultimately would be destroyed and the Jewish people would cease observing the Bikkurim ritual, he instituted in its stead the three daily prayers of the Jew: Shachris (morning prayers), Mincha (afternoon prayers) and Maariv (night prayers).
But what is the connection between the "first fruit" ritual and the daily prayers? How do our daily prayers substitute for the bringing of first fruits to the Temple?
It's All In the Beginning
The Baal Shem Tov (4), founder of the Chassidic school of thought (whose birthday is commemorated on the 18th of the Hebrew month of Elul), says that our depressing days often can be attributed to the way we begin them (5). If we commence our day by accessing our higher self, our Divine soul, then the remainder of the day will be inspired and animated by the vision, the clarity and the serenity of this spiritual light within us.
However, if we initially allow our external beastly consciousness to take the reigns in its hands as we open our eyes rise from our beds, then the remainder of the day will usually be controlled by the whims, insecurities and fears of the lower self abiding in our hearts. Once this self is in control, it is much harder for the spiritual soul to reclaim sovereignty over our attitude and behavior during that day.
Let me offer a simple example to illustrate this idea of the Baal Shem Tov.
It is far easier for a speaker to captivate an audience at the onset of his presentation than to capture its attention at a later point in the speech. When a speaker stands to talk, the audience lends him its heart for a few brief moments. If he presents himself as a genuine or captivating person, the listeners will gladly allow themselves to soar on his wings; if he projects himself as a bore, their minds will automatically wander elsewhere.
The same is true when we awaken each morning to begin our daily "presentation." If at the onset of the day, the spiritual soul takes full control and captivates its "audience" -- the human psyche, body and environment -- the platform will belong to it throughout the entire day and throughout the entire "speech."
But if the soul fails to assert itself in the beginning and does not "capture" the full attention of its audience, it naturally will be replaced by the more external and assertive beastly consciousness of man. Later in he day, it is far more difficult, though not impossible, for our G-dly light to assume its position as the guide for our lives.
Cheesecake Vs. Prayer
Many of us experience this truth continuously. If, upon awakening, we first eat a piece of cheesecake and run to check our e-mail, we allow our basic physical instincts to gain primacy in our lives. As the day lingers on we may find ourselves shallow, empty and insecure.
On the other hand, if one wakes up and, contrary to his animal instinct spends an hour in meditation, study and prayer, he can then turn even the most difficult encounter during the day into a positive and growing experience. This is because he first aligned himself with the space in his identity that is secure, genuine and idealistic.
Like the shnorer at the home of the banker, our soul, too, must begin its work the first thing in the morning.
Surrendering the First
In light of the above we can understand the contemporary relevance behind the mitzvah of Bikkurim, of bringing some of our first ripened fruits to the Jerusalem Temple. The essential meaning behind the mitzvah of Bikkurim is that the first of everything must be dedicated to that which is at the essence and core of our identity: G-d. That includes first fruits, the first hour of the day and the first earnings. When we connect the first of everything with the spiritual core of existence, everything that follows will be experienced in a most beautiful and profound way.
This is why the three daily prayers serve as a substitute for Bikkurim. The idea behind these prayers is that at every new crossroads we encounter during our day -- morning, afternoon and evening -- we begin by aligning ourselves with our spiritual and G-dly identity (6).
Brain of the Year
Just as every day has a beginning, every year, too, has a beginning, and our behavior during that beginning can determine the nature of our life for the coming year.
This is essentially the profound power contained in the two days of Rosh Hashanah, which literally means "the brain of the year." Just as a brain defines the nature and movement of the entire body, so, too, the 48 hours of Rosh Hashanah have an incredible impact on each of the hundreds of days, thousands of hours and millions of seconds of the year (7).
During the two days of Rosh Hashanah you can literally reprogram your life.
Try it (8).
1) Tanya chapter 28.
2) Deuteronomy 26:1-12.
3) Midrash Tanchumah beginning of Parshas Ki Savo.
4) Kesser Shem Tov section 212 (p. 27b). Cf. Sefer Hammarim Melukat pp. 44-45; Likkutei Sichos vol. 8 p. 305-309. See also Maamari Admur Hazakan haktzarim.
5) Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov was born on the 18th of Elul in the year 1698. He passed away on Shavuous 1760.
6) This is also one of the central ideas behind the Jewish custom that upon opening our eyes, even before we get out of bed and wash up, we offer the following affirmation known as "Modeh Ani": "I offer thanks to You, O living and everlasting King, for having restored my soul within me; great is Your
7) Ateres Rosh Shaar Rosh Hashanah.
8) This essay is based on Sefas Emes on Parshas Ki Savo (in the name of his grandfather, the Chedushei Harim); Sefer Hasichos 5751 vol. 2, letter dated 18 Elul, 5751 (1991). For another explanation in the Midrash Tanchumah cited in footnote #3, see Or Hatorah beginning of Parshas Ki Savo; Sefer Hammarim: 5626 p. 259; 5627 p. 475; 5743 discourse on Ki Savo.
My gratitude to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.