Every time I read it, it jumps out at me--whether as part of the special reading for an intermediate Shabbat during Pesach, or as part of parasha Ki Tisa. It's just the tail end of a verse. Exodus 34:20, to be precise. Somehow, it got stuck in there. The previous verses speak of redemption of the first-born of animals and humans, as does the first two sections of verse 20. So I suppose, taking the next words in context, they might refer to this obligation regarding first-borns. Perhaps to the ceremonial process of presenting/redeeming one's first born son to G"d. Yet somehow, they don't quite fit.
34:20 V'lo-yeira'u panav reikam. None shall appear before Me empty-handed (according to JPS.)
Is this really connected only to the matter of redeeming first-borns? Or is this, in and of itself, a basic commandment for all times? It is not, surprisingly, one of the 613 mitzvot as defined by the rabbis. Almost seems as if it should be. Or should it? (Should is such a dangerous word, I ought to be more hesitant to use it...)
If we accept the colloquial meaning that scholars have ascribed to the word "reikam" then "empty-handed" is a rather specific statement-that we should not appear empty-handed before G"d. However, if we go back to the root even all the possible meanings or reikam like "poured out" or "in vain" or "without effect" or "in an empty condition" or simply "empty" we have a different situation.
Surely there are many times when we might appear before G"d empty, poured out, our internal flame dim, our souls weary. These are often the times when we need G"d most, so to be told that we should not appear before G"d when we are in a state of emptiness seems puzzling. Or is it?
For if we stand truly empty before G"d, then it can be as if we are standing there vainly. Do we stand there before G"d, devoid of all hope, all love, all desire, and simply ask the Maker to put it all back into us? Can we expect G"d to do that for us? Even if we believe G"d put it in us in the first place? Is it all G"d's responsibility that somehow these have been taken from us, or drained from us by circumstances?
In a world where G"d is the puppet master and makes everything happen we might be able to blame it all on G"d. Yet this is not the world of my understanding. G"d's gift of free will ultimately makes us responsible. So perhaps G"d is telling us "don't come looking to Me for a refill before you've made some effort at doing your own refilling." If we bring G"d nothing, G"d has nothing to work with.
Thus, we should not appear before G"d empty, for if so, we are likely to leave G"d's presence the same way. G"d isn't insisiting on being met half-way. Just an effort is all that is required. Bring something with you when you appear before G"d. Whether is it a sacrifice, a thought, love, concern, fear, disdain, happiness - whatever it is, if it is something other than vanity or emptiness, it may be enough. Both human beings and G"d can work little sparks into blazing fires. Just remember to bring the wood and the spark.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher v'Sameakh,
©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
Intermediate Shabbat of
Passover 5766-A Lily Among Thorns
Pesach VII 5761 (Revised 5765)
Hol HaMoed Pesach 5764-Dem Bones & Have We Left Gd behind? (5578-60)
Hol Hamoed Pesach 5763-No Empty Gestures (Redux 5762)
5761-Pesach VII-Redundant Anamnesis
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