Parashat Ki-Tavo 5768/ September 20, 2008
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
What Can We Learn From Bikkurim?
This week’s portion opens with the commandment to bring the
first fruits to
This commandment includes four points: (1) to bring the first fruits (verses 1-4); (2) the formulation “A wandering Aramean,” to be recited by the person performing the commandment (vv. 5-10); (3) bowing to the Lord after the recitation of the first fruits (v. 10); (4) a special addition to the commandment: “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household” (v. 11).
The commandment of bringing first fruits might be said to
be the quintessential expression of the bond between the people of
The ritual of bringing first fruits is accompanied by recitation of a formulaic text, the first-fruits reading. Such a prescribed recitation does not appear in the ritual of any other offering. At the end of the ritual, when he places the fruits before the priest, he must bow down, prostrating himself fully, stretching out hands and feet. This action is also unique to the ritual of bringing first fruits. All of these actions lend expression to specific values and attributes, some of which we shall discuss here.
After investing so much effort in tilling the soil, the farmer values all the more strongly the fruits of his land, and feel attached to them. When he brings precisely this produce to the priest, the act of giving strengthens his sense of generosity; for as Maimonides says, the object of giving “the first of everything to the Lord” is to “strengthen the trait of generosity and to reduce the lust for food and acquisition of wealth.”  Had he chosen to, he could have eaten them himself or sold these fruits; the act of giving them away is a sublimation of one’s yearnings and desires. The prophet Isaiah expresses the excitement experienced upon seeing a first fruit, from which we can understand the magnitude of the sacrifice in giving it up: “They shall be like an early fig before the fruit harvest; whoever sees it devours it while it is still in his hand” (28:4).
The ability to recognize and be thankful for the good that is bestowed on us, giving thanks to the Lord for His bounty, is another aspect of personality that is strengthened by performing the commandment of first fruits. Through this commandment we express our acknowledgment that it is not by our own might and the strength of our hands that we obtain this bounty, rather, everything is by the grace of G-d. It is as if we bring our first fruits to the Holy One, blessed be He, in return for His having “brought us to this place and given us this land (Deut. 6:9);” but as it says in Chronicles, “all is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given You (I Chron. 29:14).” The Lord does not need our gifts; therefore the purpose of this act is to help ourselves, strengthening our humility and our ability to acknowledge the good that is given us.
These virtues also follow from the passage that is recited
in the ritual of first fruits. In this
brief proclamation, the person bringing the first fruits mentions the history
Giving thanks is not merely a question of manners, of fulfilling an obligation; rather, a person feels great joy at being able to give thanks for his well-being. The passage, “my father was a fugitive Aramean,” is also recited at the Passover Seder, for the same reason – to bring alive for us that which we underwent, and then we can achieve a true sense of gratefulness to Him who performed all these miracles for us. It should be noted that the commandment to recite this passage when bringing first fruits is put as follows: “You shall respond and say,” meaning you should recite out loud (Rashi). The person who brings the first fruits must hear himself making this proclamation.
Identification and Equality
The statement, “I acknowledge this day … that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to out fathers to assign us,” expresses identification with our people and with our ancestors, as if we ourselves had been brought to the land that the Lord swore to give to our ancestors. This sense of personal identification also contributes its share to the sense of gratitude.
There are other commandments associated with the ritual of bringing first fruits which are not explicitly spelled out in this week’s reading, rather are relayed to us in the Mishnah (Tractate Bikkurim). Among them are commandments that serve to remind us that all human beings are equal before G-d – namely, the obligation to receive the gift of the poor person with love and respect, just as the gift of the wealthy; not to embarrass the illiterate person, which is why the formulary text is to be recited in the presence of all those who bring first fruits, as well as other commandments. All of these are educational values of paramount importance.
After the recitation comes prostration before the Lord, an act that signifies total abnegation of the self and one’s own ego. The ability to bow down is a key element in the relationship between man and G-d. As long as a person is immersed in self-centered thought, he builds a barrier separating him from G-d; bowing down before the Lord brings down this barrier. In the ritual of bringing first fruits to the Holy One, blessed be He, bowing down also expresses the idea of absolute giving and acknowledgment that everything comes from the hand of the Lord.
The fourth component of the commandment of first fruits is the rejoicing that accompanies performance of this commandment: “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your G-d has bestowed upon you and your household.” This is not a promise that performing the mitzvah will bring joy, or a recommendation to make the first fruits ceremony a joyous occasion; rather, the rejoicing is an essential part of the commandment, and the celebrant who brings the first fruits is obliged to share his rejoicing with the others mentioned here – the Levite and the stranger.
Rabbi Hayyim Vital explains (in Sha’ar ha-Kavanot) that when we perform a commandment sadly we are like a servant who serves his master with a sad and displeased countenance. This is unworthy behavior even between one person and another, and all the more so between a person and the Lord. Sadness causes the Divine Presence to absent itself – the Divine Presence does not dwell among us in sadness, nor does prophecy come to us in sadness.  Worshipping the Lord must be done in joy. But what does it mean to be in a state of true rejoicing? Most of the things that we are accustomed to call “joyful” do not necessarily express true rejoicing.
I have heard Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik quoted as saying that modern society invests greatly in achieving happiness, namely, in what we commonly call entertainment: going to restaurants, cafes, clubs, theatres, movies – a veritable industry. But can all these bring a person true joy? Whence comes all the hatred, frustration, despair, drug abuse, and all the evil that we find in society? In his opinion, all of the things we have mentioned are a way of fleeing from reality; at best they give us momentary happiness. People are consumed by fear of death, sometimes also by fear of life, and all the leisure time activities that are offered on the market are designed to engulf the person and help him forget these fears.
Sinking into this sort of “happiness,” aimed primarily at the baser qualities of human beings, in most cases achieves the opposite. True rejoicing, in contrast, is not to flee from reality; rather, it is to connect to a different reality, the reality of the Divine that is above us and the spiritual that is in us.
All the values listed above – generosity, gratefulness, humility, doing away with egocentrism, not insisting on one’s rights as if to say, “I deserve,” which find expression in the commandment of bringing first fruits, ought to be doubly reinforced during the month of penitence and forgiveness, prior to the New Year. “All who act with forbearance are forgiven all their sins.”