You may recall the classic Disney movies that managed to speak to audiences at multiple levels: gags and themes that delighted children were presented alongside humor directed at adults. The kids did not need to understand the grown-up humor in order to grasp the movie, of course. But it always amazed and delighted me to watch some of those movies again as an adult and realize that there were plenty of goodies that I simply had to be older in order to notice.
I think this is true for many great works, but it is especially true for reading the Torah. The top level story can be understood by anyone who can grasp words. And many people simply read the text through, recognizing the version of the text that they can access while being oblivious to the fact that there are layers upon layers that are there as well, but can only be accessed via a “whole text” approach to reading and analysis.
Here is one such tidbit to illustrate my point.
Moses commands the representatives of each tribe to tour the land of Israel, and report back. He commands them with some particulars. And then the text tells us something:
And it was the season of the first grapes.
We can certainly read this snippet as color commentary: it was that time of year. Perhaps it helps explain how the land looked, or what the spies brought back with them. Simple enough, right?
Ah! But there is a deeper meaning that eludes the casual storybook reader. The clues are in the words themselves: “first” (bikkurim) and “grapes” (anavim).
The word “First” appears initially in the text in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel’s offering was accepted by G-d, while Cain’s offering was rejected. Why? Because while Cain tried to pay G-d off (like a pagan offering does), Abel brings a token, to show acknowledgement that it is G-d, not natural forces, that is the ultimate source of our prosperity. How do we know?
Because Abel does not bring G-d the best – instead, he brings the first of his flocks!
Why does Abel do this? After all, first fruit and animals are never the best (late harvest wines are sweetest, for example). The first fruits are not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only need to be the first. G-d is not hungry for fruit. He is hungry for connection, for appreciation. So Abel understood that G-d wants a relationship that includes gratitude, while Cain, by paying G-d off, was merely acknowledging G-d’s power.
For the purposes of understanding the season of the spies, we need to see the linkage to Cain and Abel, and understand that there was a clear risk that if the spies did not understand that the blessings of the earth are all ultimately from G-d, then the people would end up like Cain, wandering out their days because they failed to understand the difference between a pagan deity of power, and the Torah deity of connection.
So by using “first” in explaining the season, the text is telling us that the spies are being put back in the position of Cain and Abel, facing the very same test: do we recognize G-d’s role in this world? Do we understand what our relationship to G-d is supposed to be?
The Torah commands us later, in an echo of Cain and Abel, to bring the first-fruits (using the very same word, bikkurim). Bikkurim are a token of our appreciation, and bringing them leads to joy and sharing and blessings.
But the Torah is telling us that the story could have gone the other way. As indeed, with the spies, it did.
The second key word in this verse is “grapes.” And this one is even easier to discern, if we but look for it. Noach is the first person to plant grapes. He does it as a method of dealing with survivor guilt, and the story gets very dark as a result. Alcohol is a coping mechanism, especially for those who feel sorry for themselves, who choose to deny responsibility for their actions. Diminished capacity is an enabler for “it wasn’t my fault.” A drunk person is incapable, in that moment, of having a deep relationship.
But for all of this, grapes are not forbidden in the Torah. Indeed, the next reference in the text is that of the dream of the Butler:
Then the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph. He said to him, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”
The dream of the butler was the prophecy that in three (hundred years) the Jewish people would become ripe and fat, and delivered into G-d’s hand! Thus, grapes refer to redemption! They connect to promises being fulfilled, of divinely-decreed destiny that saves the people.
So on the one hand, grapes represent the potential for catastrophic danger, especially if we block our cognitive capabilities and choose instead to wallow in self pity. A person who chooses to not be responsible for themselves and their actions is, in the Torah, a tragedy, an overlooked golden ticket for holy relationships with G-d and with others.
And on the other hand, grapes can refer to our deliverance, to an ongoing and connected relationship in the hands of G-d. Quite a potent little fruit!
So when the Torah tells us the season, we can read it like an interesting story, and see the verse as setting the scene, helping us imagine what Canaan looked like.
But if we are adults, then we can also understand that we are being warned, by reference to the grapes, that there was great potential for triumph or disaster (depending on our ability to take responsibility and keep our wits about us). The Torah is telling us that the mission was always on a knife’s edge, capable of going either way.
And the reference to the “first” connects us right back to Cain and Abel’s offering: would the spies see things as Cain did, or as Abel did? If the latter, then the result of the mission would have been a triumph. But if the people saw things as Cain did, saw G-d as merely another powerful deity that needed to be appeased, then they would be unable to understand the core condition of living in the land of Canaan: being in the land is conditional, and it requires a relationship with G-d that is entirely different from the relationship Cain had when he brought a percentage of his fruits in an attempt to buy off (and thus distance himself from) G-d, instead
But in order to see any of this, we first need to appreciate that, in the immortal words of the eponymous hero in that great anti-Disney movie, Shrek, one must first understand that many things are not as they first seem: like onions – and ogres – the Torah has layers.