The acceptance of our fruit is the Creator’s gift to usby Rabbi Pinchas Lipner
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Deuteronomy 26:1 - 29:8
In our relatively affluent times it is easy enough for us to forget the source of all blessing and to fall into the trap of believing "Kochi V'otzem yadi" -- all is achieved by my power and the strength of my hands. It is human nature as well to want to forget or deny one's humble beginnings when rejoicing in times of plenty. The ability to conveniently ignore our human limitations is, in itself, a human limitation.
The story comes to mind of the man who repeatedly and desperately beseeches the Almighty to provide a parking space for him on an extremely busy and crowded street. When one suddenly opens up, he looks heavenward and declares, "Never mind, I got one."
This week's Torah portion brings the special mitzvah of bikkurim (the first fruits) as an antidote for this common human failing. Here we are commanded to bring the first fruits of the season to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem as a gift of thanksgiving to G-d.
As things that are first are often most precious to us, the fruits were to be carried on our shoulders to suggest humility and submission to G-d and appreciation for His goodness. In addition, each person bringing bikkurim had to make a declaration in which he was to repeat the story of our past going back to the very first miracle done for the Jewish people. G-d prevented Lavan, the Aramean, from destroying our forefather, Jacob, which would have effectively meant that there would be no Jewish people.
Interestingly enough, this event is also recounted in the Passover Haggadah. The great commentator Abarbanel in the Haggadah explains that on seder nights we are obligated to thank G-d for all the kindness he has shown us not only in Egypt, but from the very beginning and to the present.
So does the mitzvah of bikkurim, with its attendant declaration attempt to express our acknowledgement that it is not our power and the strength of our hands that brought forth the produce, but the goodness of our Creator to whom our everlasting gratitude is due. Abarbanel connects the two mitzvot of the seder and the bringing of the first fruits. He suggests that as we look at the seder plate before us we should feel as if we are bringing bikkurim.
The commentary Akeidah teaches that by bringing the bikkurim each year we will always be aware of what is stated in Psalms 24:1: "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it." It is He who gives us what we have and grants us all of our success. Bringing the first fruits reinforces our recognition of the source of our salvation and blessing. The yearly magnificent procession of people coming up to Jerusalem on every road from every corner of the land carrying baskets of fruit on their shoulders publicized the nation's acceptance of the yolk of Heaven.
It appears that people desire and require a tangible venue to express joy and gratitude particularly if they have survived great difficulties. After all the hardships endured by the Jewish people in Egypt as well as in the desert on their way to Israel and finally entering the promised land, G-d provided the Jewish people with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Obviously, by definition, G-d doesn't need our gifts, but we need to give Him a physical token of our abundant gratitude.
In the absence of His need, His acceptance of our gifts is but another manifestation of His giving, of His concern for and His fulfilling of our needs. It is a paradox that in this case His taking is actually giving.
Rabbi Yitzchak Breuer, in his Nachaliel commentary, beautifully describes this mitzvah: "The Bikkurim brought every year are an unparalleled demonstration of a happy and blessed nation living on its land in quiet and security. It is demonstration of the sovereignty of G-d over the nation which each year accepts anew with bent knee and with bowed head the land and its produce from its G-d."
The writer is dean of Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.
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