The mitzva of 'bikkurim' - implications for tshuva

Celebrating agriculture sanctifies everyday life.

fruit (photo credit: Michelangelo da Carvaggio)
(photo credit: Michelangelo da Carvaggio)
The holiday of Shavuot is traditionally associated with the mitzva of “bikkurim” – when farmers bring the first fruits to the Temple.  This mitzva has two parts – the actual bringing of the bikkurim to the kohen (priest), and the farmer’s declaration, a speech that later assumed the central role in the Pessah Haggada. This declaration essentially thanks Hashem for having brought us out of Egyptian slavery into Eretz Yisrael, and for giving us the ability to grow produce of intrinsic holiness by working the soil of the Holy Land.
In the book Mei Hashiloah, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Ishbitzer Rebbe, makes a startling observation. In biblical Hebrew there are several verbs meaning “to tell” or “to say,” each with its own unique nuance. In verse 3, it says higadeti hayom – “I have said on this day.” The Ishbitzer comments: “[The word] Haggada, [usually translated as ‘narrative’] hints at words of rebuke, for he speaks harsh words to the kohen, hinting to him that even though he (the kohen) serves in the Temple, while he (the farmer) toils in the field, nonetheless when a Jew reaches the Temple bringing the bikkurim it is clarified that in his own place he was in a state of holiness like the kohen serving (in the Temple).”
This statement encapsulates a major tenet of the Torah’s worldview: Kedusha, holiness, is not something limited only to “ritual” or “religious” matters, but is primarily concerned with the elevation and sanctification of everyday life. As Hazal state in Avot 2:12: “All of your deeds should be leshem Shamayim – for the sake of heaven.”
This concept can help us to elucidate an interesting mishna. Chapter 3 of Bikkurim describes the procession of the farmers bringing the bikkurim to the Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of the third mishna we read: “All of the craftsmen in Jerusalem stand up (in honor) of them, greeting them: ‘Our brethren from such and such a place – come in peace.’”  The Bartenura questions this mishna with another halacha: Even though it is obligatory to rise when a Torah scholar passes by, craftsmen do not have to stop their work to stand up for a talmid hacham, for this disrupts their work. Why then, asks the Bartenura, do they stand for those farmers bringing the bikkurim? His answer is that this constitutes a case of haviva mitzva beshe’ata, a mitzva that is beloved at its special time. In other words, this is a special event, like a funeral or a circumcision, when everyone also stands.
However, based on Mei Hashiloah, we can perhaps glean an additional insight. If a craftsman was required to stand up for a passing Torah scholar, the result might have greater ramifications than a momentary delay in his work. It might also serve to reinforce an inferiority complex of sorts. The craftsman may feel that, “The talmid hacham (parallel to the kohen in the Temple) spends all his time engaged in the service of Hashem, studying and teaching Torah, while I am only a lowly shoemaker. When he goes by, I need to interrupt my work, which is really of little significance.” When the craftsman, on the other hand, rises before the farmer bringing bikkurim, the opposite impact is achieved. Both are members of the working class, one a rural proletariat, the other an urban proletariat. Standing up for the farmer, while causing a momentary interruption in his work, is actually an act of spiritual “class solidarity,” which should serve to instill new pride in the importance of his own work. Just as the farmer discovers the holiness of his own occupation as a means of sanctifying everyday life to the service of Hashem, so does the urban worker who rises to greet him.
The grandson of the Ishbitzer, Rabbi Gershon Chanoch Leiner, goes a step further. In Sod Yesharim he writes, regarding the same verse: “Since he has come from working in the field to the Temple, and has realized that the honor (of Hashem’s) majesty is found also in physical matters, he is on a higher level than the kohen, who serves constantly in the Temple where (God's) light is very clear and refined.” In other words, it's relatively easy to be holy and pure while in the Temple (or in today’s yeshiva environment), but it’s a much greater challenge to discover and maintain holiness while in the marketplace, at work, or in graduate school.
Rabbi Kook writes: “Specifically from within true, pure teshuva we must return to the world and to life, and with this we restore holiness to its proper foundation, and enthrone the Shechina (Divine Presence) in the world” (Orot Hateshuva 14:30). It is not sufficient to be holy only in the realm of ritual. Hassidut stresses avoda begashmiut, corporeal service, through which we sanctify and elevate all of reality, infusing even the profane realm with holiness. This path is more demanding, and yet anything less is a dichotomized approach to reality which contradicts the holistic nature of Divine service. Through our sincere teshuva, we should gain the wisdom and strength to internalize the message of the bikkurim, sanctifying the entire world as Hashem’s Kingdom.  Thus we will be able not only to receive the Torah as if for the first time on this Shavuot holiday, but also to make it a meaningful tool with which to approach and to perfect the world.
Rabbi Zvi Leshem is the spiritual leader of Shirat Shlomo Congregation in Efrat. He holds a PhD in Jewish Philosophy and is the author of Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.