Do you remember mom and pop stores where withered, yellowed dollar bills were taped to walls behind cash registers? The custom of saving the first earned dollar is no longer popular in this era of chain stores.
In the biblical world, there was a custom akin to displaying the "lucky" dollar. It involved reserving a portion of the first fruits as a gift to God. In a curious ritual, supplicants presented baskets of first fruits to priests in Jerusalem while reciting a formula now included in the Passover Haggadah:
Arami oved avi — My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portends. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil that You, O Lord, have given me (Deut. 26: 5-10).
Giving first fruits to God seems nobler than merely taping a dollar to the wall, although both practices speak of sentimental yearnings and noble purposes. The ancient custom of bikurim, the gift of the first fruits, compelled Israelites to give a portion of their possessions when they might have tried to hold onto every earned shekel. Thus, Deuteronomy admonished Israelites to open their hands wide to the needy.
Several recent noteworthy news items could be
titled "last fruits," news stories about people who appeared to be of modest or no means who left a huge sum of money to a religious, educational or philanthropic institution with which they had little or no connection.
Theodore and Harvey Baker grew up on a rural Wisconsin dairy farm. After it was sold, they took jobs as unskilled factory workers and lived frugally, saving and investing their money. By the time they died, they had a total net worth of $6 million, all of which was left to an unsuspecting University of Wisconsin.
Anne Scheiber, who lived in a New York City rent-stabilized apartment, made headlines when she died at the age of 101, leaving an estate of $22 million to Yeshiva University, an institution she never attended.
Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old Mississippi washerwoman, accumulated $150,000 and while she was still alive, created a trust for students at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Olive Swindells of Maryland lived frugally in a modest home so covered with vines that it was not visible from the street. When she died last year at the age of 94, she left $4.4 million to Gallaudet University, an institution with which neither she nor her husband had ever had any connection.
Here in San Francisco, reclusive Zygmunt Erhart, in a handwritten will, left his entire life savings of $4 million to the city in gratitude for all it had afforded him.
What motivates people to give their last fruits to organizations that did not know of their existence? These self-effacing, quiet, simple individuals stand in sharp contrast to those who give reluctantly and then only with fanfare, media exposure and public recognition and who neglect to do anything noble or charitable with their wealth upon their deaths.
Tzedakah, acts of loving and charitable giving, is a keystone of the approaching High Holy Days. Consideration of our own mortality and vision of the great Book of Life, which we pray we and our loved ones will be inscribed in, must be linked to a responsibility to give back in the form of first fruits as well as last fruits. To do so is to be mindful of the Deuteronomic injunction: "There will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy" (Deut. 15:11). To do so enriches the lives of others as well as the life of the giver. That is what adds life to our lives!