The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Why does Mikra Bikurim-the declaration accompanying the bringing of the first fruits/produce begin with a review of the Egyptian exile and exodus? In particular, why is there an emphasis on the population explosion during the Egyptian exile? Why do these pesukim-verses; serve as the opening of the maggid section of Pesach evening Haggadah-telling? Is there a common denominator between the two?

And then you shall respond and say before HaShem your Elokim: “my patriarch was a wandering Aramean. He descended into Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an émigré; yet it was there that he became a great, powerful, and heavily populated nation.

— Devarim 26:5

 … This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.

— Devarim 8:3

According to the Jewish mystical tradition all of creation is divided into four tiers domem –silent (inert); tzomeach-sprouting (botanic life); chai-animate (animal life); medaber-speech-endowed life (human beings). Each tier of creation ascends to higher tiers through an upwardly mobile food-chain by nourishing, and thus being incorporated into, the level directly above it until, ultimately, it is assimilated into the human being, the creature that can face and serve the Creator. Minerals nourish plants and are absorbed through the roots buried in the soil and through photosynthesis. Plants are eaten by herbivorous animals providing nutrients for the animals’ sustenance and growth. Animals are ingested by carnivorous humans supplying the calories, vitamins and minerals human beings need to live and flourish.

This upwardly mobile food-chain has a spiritual dimension as well.

Man is more than highly developed biological machine that expires when enough of the moving parts wear down.  Man is endowed with a cheilek elokai mima’al-a spark of the Divine; and it is the union of soul and body that defines human life. Superficially the external symptoms of death may appear to be too many of the moving parts breaking down; in truth human death occurs as a result of the dissolution of the marriage between body and soul. This begs the question: If there is a spiritual element inherent in human beings what is it that nourishes the soul?  Eating food is often described as “keeping body and soul together” but how is this accomplished?

The Rebbe Reb Chaim Chernovitzer cites a teaching of the Arizal in response. Our sages teach us that even the smallest blade of  grass here below has a guardian angel on High that “bangs it on the head and exhorts it to grow”(Bereishis Rabbah 10:6). In other words, even the lowest tiers of creation have a spiritual element that animates them, lending them existence, form and substance.  In the case of grass, being a plant, a tzomeach-that which sprouts and grows; the grass’ “soul” demands growth. Presumably for animals the soul would demand and promote movement and vitality and for soil and all inert creatures the soul would demand and promote silence and stillness. Such that all food substances are also composed of both a body and a soul, albeit inferior to the human body and soul both physically and spiritually. The manifest, visible food is the “body” of the food, while the sacred emanation from on High exhorting it “to be” and not revert to nonexistence lending it form and substance is the foods “soul”.  When absorbed or ingested the physical element of the food nourishes the consumer’s material component while the “soul” of the food, i.e. its spiritual element, nourishes the consumer’s spiritual dimension.

This is the meaning of the pasuk “that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.” The motza pi HaShem-that which emanates from HaShems mouth; refers to the Divine Will that this thing/ foodstuff exist. It is the motza pi HaShem lending tzurah-form; and spirituality that is indispensable for human beings to live, not the corporeal, apparent bread alone.


The “souls” of all tiers of creation yearn, as it were, to be eaten by the higher tiers to be poshet tzurah v’lovesh tzurah-to disrobe from one form and clothe themselves in a higher form; transmigrating from soul to soul and from tzurah to tzurah and until they assume the tzurah of the human being to “partner” in the service of HaShem through integration with the human who worships HaShem.

The moment between the disrobing of one form and assuming of the next form is fraught.  Those moments are informed by a profoundly tragic existential angst as they are, in effect, a time of self-abnegation and nonexistence. Naked souls are hardly souls at all. This is especially so when the bridge moments represent a step down rather than a step up.

Consider grains like wheat. As soon as the crop is harvested the vast majority is milled into flour and is immediately capable of being incorporated into a human being; bypassing the transitional stage of being used for animal feed. However, a minority of every grain crop is never milled at all.  Instead it is saved in order to sow the next crop.  If it were sentient the wheat kernel about to be cast into a freshly plowed furrow in the earth would wail and howl, crying out to its Creator “Please have mercy on me.  I could have “become” human.  Instead You are sentencing me to be buried back in the earth whence I came — there to rot, decompose and to become unfit for human consumption!  Dear G-d why is this happening to me?”  The seeds crying and screaming does not stop until the Divine emanation influences it to proliferate with explosive growth.  Now, instead of one grain attaining a human tzurah, thousands will.

This, says the second Izhbitzer, is precisely what happened to the Nation of Israel during the Egyptian exile and exodus. The prayerful crying and wailing of the slaves in Egypt was about more than intolerable pain and suffering that their slavers inflicted upon them. Their collective wailing was the cry of the decaying kernel. “We already were Your servants in Your holy land. Why were the 70 souls of our patriarchs household chased out of the Kings Presence? When our patriarch Yaakov became a wandering Aramean he ‘descended’ more than just geographically. Here in Egypt we rot and disintegrate.  We have been dehumanized and lost our independent identities. We are mere appendages of the Egyptian and been debased, buried deep in the unholy soil of the 49 levels of impurity. Dear G-d why is this happening to us?”

But as was the case with the sown grain kernel, in which a miniscule amount morphs into something vast and rich, Yaakov descended with a small clan and Moshe ascended “harvesting” an enormous Nation fit for the Divine Indwelling.

The Maharal of Prague explains that, whether it is producing the new crop or building Klal Yisrael-the Nation of Israel; the imperative prerequisite for the blessed, explosive proliferation to attain the fullness of identity is a degraded state of decomposition, disintegration and nonexistence as surely as the night preceded the day in the Divine Creative process.

Every farmer aids and abets this process of loss and decomposition to achieve blessing and abundance. The farmer, like some agrarian Aramean patriarch, buries numerous seeds “alive” leading to their disintegration into nothingness. Then, when he offers bikurim and thanks HaShem for the emanation of His abundant blessing and praises HaShem for His hearkening to the cry of the decaying kernel, the farmer declares “my patriarch was a wandering Aramean. He descended into Egypt with a small number of men etc.” In so doing, he expresses his understanding of the process and the absolute necessity for decay and self-abnegation in order to attain blessing, abundance and the capacity to serve HaShem in the highest way possible; in the Bais Hamikdash-the holy Temple.

We begin Pesach evening Haggadah reciting the same pesukim as the farmer offering his bikurim so that the style of retelling the Exodus narrative should be consistent with its substance. The exodus itself was the history of a degraded state of decomposition, disintegration and nonexistence preceding the blessed, explosive proliferation to attain the fullness of identity for Klal Yisrael. So it is entirely appropriate that the style of teaching that history be maschil b’genus umesayeim b’shevach-beginning with denigration and ending with praise; and derech sheailah u’teshuvah-by way of question and answer; (Pesachim 116A) wherein the answers wisdom and enlightenment is preceded by the questions ignorance and darkness.

While the mitzvah of bikurim cannot be observed in contemporary practice the lesson of Mikra Bikurim should not be lost upon us.  When things seem bleakest for a tzibbur-community; or for an individual, when we seem to be dehumanized and disintegrating into nothingness, when the dirt of galus-exile; seems to have buried us alive, we ought not to despair and stop praying. On the contrary; we should implore HaShem for geulah-redemption; and mustering our most primal screams; howl the cry of the decaying kernel and not stop until HaShem in His Mercy bestows the abundance and blessing of proliferation and attaining a vastly richer, fuller, new identity,  to be poshet tzurah v’lovesh tzurah, in order to serve Him in ever loftier ways.

~adapted from Bais Yaakov Ki Savo D”H v’aneesa
Sidduro shel Shabbos root 2:branch 1:leaf 4 D”H v’achar
Gevuros HaShem 52 D”H Tenan

An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood


Originally Posted 9/11/2014

5 comments on “The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

  1. shkoyach, thanks for the encouraging words and for bring meifitz the maayonos of the Mei Hashiloach’s Beis Medrash

  2. The Cry of the Decaying Kernel was brilliant and I loved the title. It was the Shabbos lunch D’var Torah and we had our mechatunim as guests.

  3. the brilliance is that of the great seforim that I adapted the piece from. Shkoyach for the kind and encouraging words.

    ksivah v’chasimah tovah

  4. R. Schwartz,

    What an amazing interpretation of “bikurim” in
    this parsha.

    You never fail to elevate our knowledge with
    your brilliant commentary,as the levels of
    creation are elevated for us. This month,
    we have to continue to ELUL-vate everything
    for Hashem.

    Thank you for this inspirational commentary.

    kesiva v’chatima tova


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