Ki Tavo

A good friend of mine and I formed a time to the study Talmud on a regular basis. Many of the topics discussed in the Talmud deal with rituals and observances that no longer apply to our generation. Not all Mitzvot apply to every person, every time and/or every place. Some Mitzvot apply only to Levites, others only to special days of the year or cycles of years and others only apply to those living in the Land of Israel. So if a particular Mitzvah doesn’t apply in this day and age, or to this person or location, my friend will always ask, “how do I apply this to my life, right now, right here?”

The answer to this question is found in the juxtaposition of two Mitzvot described in this week’s Torah portion. The first is the Mitzvah of Bikurim – first fruits (Devarim 26:1-11), where the farmer who owned fruit trees in Israel was obliged to bring his first ripe fruits as a special offering and make a special declaration in the Beit HaMikdash – the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Mishnah (Tractate Bikurim 3:3, 4) describes in minute detail how these fruits were gathered, packed, and carried on the shoulders of the pilgrims on their way to the Holy City. It then informs us that they were greeted by the dignitaries of the city with music and songs and testimonial speeches.

Viewing the ceremony and the accompanying praise and recognition, an observer might presume that extensive and generous offerings had been made from the fruits. And he would then be surprised to learn that Jewish law does not in fact stipulate the exact quantity to be given as Bikurim. Indeed, it is the first fruits that are included among those Mitzvot that have no limits or parameters in terms of their performance and observance. One could observe this Mitzvah by just giving something – such as a cluster of grapes and a few dates or a few olives to represent an entire orchard, and this would be sufficient.

There was another contribution that a Jew was obliged to give, and that represented a much more substantial part of his income that is also mentioned in our Parsha. The Mitzvah of Ma’aser or Tithe (Devarim 1:12-15). Ten percent of one’s harvest went to the Levite, and periodically ten percent went to the poor. But Ma’aser was given quietly, without any of the fanfare or pageantry or testimonials associated with the Bikurim ritual. No special tribute was paid to the farmer for his generous contribution to the Levite and the poor, no music was played in his honor. So one might question, why did the bringing of the first ripe fruits kindle the imagination of all, while the giving of the tithes, certainly a significant act of generosity and communal responsibility was passed over without any notice? The answer, one might say, is “in the timing” – of learning how to ‘put things first’ in life.

Just imagine the farmer tilling his land, pruning his trees, lighting his fires to protect the orchards from the frost. Finally, after months of anxiety and toil and travail, he beholds the first ripe fruit. What joy must have flooded his heart at seeing the fruit of his realized labors? We could just picture that desire and impulse to want to literally taste the fruits of his labor. But no, the first fruits are not his, and they are instead designated as a special offering in the Temple. They are a gift to the Almighty. So he takes the first fruits before he can partake of them, and designates them as Bikurim. He takes them to the holy Temple in Jerusalem, where special tribute is paid to him for his strength of character and his devotion to G-d, his being able to supplant his own desires to a higher cause, more sublime purpose.

Ma’aser on the other hand, was given much later. It was given at the conclusion of the harvest, when all of the produce was safely stored in the silos and granaries. When giving at so late a date, when the storehouses are brimming and overflowing with produce, doesn’t the farmer deserve any special recognition or tribute. Is it just a duty performed in accordance with the law, but nothing more?

The difference between the Ma’aser and the Bikurim then lies in the fact that with Bikurim it was not the gift but the idea behind the gift that warranted such emphasis. For it is not always how much one gives that is so important, as much as how that person comes forth with his generosity and recognition of the very source of their material bounty.

And we can see the lesson of Bikurim applied to other aspects of our lives and our human existence. For when a Jew devotes his energies and talents to his people, to his religion and to society when he is in the prime of life, that is Bikurim, a recognition of the primacy of these roles and obligations in his life which are not secondary but essential to a meaningful and just life. But when a person waits for the twilight of his life to first become active in Jewish life then that is Ma’aser.

Unfortunately, many adopt this Ma’aser type philosophy early in life and live altogether in the future waiting for some final moments. I will study – when I retire. I will attend services and become active in community activities – when I have more leisure time. I will give my Ma’aser, I will become more charitable – when I make my killing in my business or when my ship comes in. There are many who delay or defer their involvement and meaningful roles to some later time, time that might never come or happen. It is a dangerous, if not a reckless practice towards procrastination and delay. Who knows if there will be a future? Who knows if there will be those later years? And so it was the great sage Hillel who underscored this thought so well with his famous teaching in Pirkei Avot, chapter 1, Mishnah 14 – “If not now, when?” If something in life should be done, it should be done now, instead of waiting until tomorrow. “Next year” is now!

This is the importance of Bikurim in our day and age, it is not in its gift, which was often minute in comparison to the actual yield of the field, but its lesson, which was immense and intended to provide us with a way to prioritize our lives. Our ancestors brought their very first fruits, the best of their resources, to G-d as a symbol of their priorities in life. And so let us learn the beautiful lesson of Bikurim by bringing our first strengths to G-d and Judaism. And in so doing, we shall bring meaning to our lives and blessings to our people, not only giving graciously, but gaining from our goodness as well.

Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tovah TiKateivu V’TeCheteimu – may you be transcribed and inscribed (in the Book of Life) for a good year.

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Rabbi Yosil Rosenzweig
Devarim (Deuteronomy) 26:1-29:8
Haftorah – Isaiah 60:1-22
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