Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Olive, Fig and Grape: Don't say No! (Derashah)

[For the record: I have a poppy on my coat today.]

[Note: This week's "Toronto Torah" is now available here.]

I spoke at a UJA meeting earlier this week, and presented an idea I really like; it would be a good skeleton for a derashah if I were still in the darshaning business.

Here’s a digest:

Avimelech, son of Gideon, uses the aid of the population of Shechem to murder his half-siblings and gain the throne. Yotam, the sole remaining sibling, delivers a public rebuke before disappearing into hiding. (Shoftim 9)

As JPS translates the relevant part of Yotam’s speech:
He went and stood in the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice, and cried, and said unto them: 'Hearken unto me, ye men of Shechem, that Gd may hearken unto you.
The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive-tree: Reign thou over us.
But the olive-tree said unto them: Should I leave my fatness, seeing that by me they honour G-d and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?
And the trees said to the fig-tree: Come thou, and reign over us.
But the fig-tree said unto them: Should I leave my sweetness, and my good fruitage, and go to hold sway over the trees?
And the trees said unto the vine: Come thou, and reign over us.
And the vine said unto them: Should I leave my wine, which cheereth G-d and man, and go to hold sway over the trees?
Then said all the trees unto the bramble: Come thou, and reign over us.
And the bramble said unto the trees: If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shadow...

Clearly, the main villain whom Yotam targets is his half-brother, the thorn, Avimelech. This is a completely unworthy, unproductive man, and he has accepted the throne.

It is also evident that Yotam blames the population itself for asking the thorn to lead.

But there is another set of villains: The olive, fig and grape, which decline to lead because they wish to preserve their unique attributes, which they fear they would lose if they were to take the throne. The olive is afraid it might lose its dignified position; the fig is afraid it might no longer be seen as the one that produces sweet, satisfying fruit; the grape fears that it will no longer be seen as the source of joy.

I see this all the time, in community work; it’s especially relevant for tzedakah solicitation. People are afraid that they will lose their respected positions if they run around asking for funds. People are afraid that they will be known as takers, rather than givers. People are afraid that they will spend their time talking about war and poverty and social services, and cease to be the life of the party.

But those are the people we need, for their talents! We need people who make community enterprises an honor. We need sweet people who make others feel good. And we need people who bring joy to these serious matters. These are the people who make good on the Torah’s עשר בשביל שתתעשר (“tithe so that you will become wealthy”) pledge – the people who enrich those who give, in many diverse ways that transcend finances. We need the olive, the fig and the grape.

All leaders bring talents to the table. None of us are thorns – but what sort of fruit are we?

And I closed with one more thought: The olive, fig and grape are reticent because they fear losing their dignity, they fear becoming known as takers, they fear being known for dull sobriety. But the truth, and I have seen it many times, is that those who lead end up with greater honor, end up known for the satisfaction they provide rather than the money they take, and end up increasing spiritual joy for themselves and for all they meet.

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