Parashat Ki Tavo: The fruits of destiny

The Mishna magnificently describes the drama of the bringing of the first fruits: the massive march to Jerusalem of farmers from all over Israel with the choicest fruit and grain of their labors.

ki tavo 88 (photo credit: )
ki tavo 88
(photo credit: )
The Mishna (Bikurim) magnificently describes the drama of the bringing of the first fruits: the massive march to Jerusalem of farmers from all over Israel with the choicest fruit and grain of their labors, the decorated market-places of our Holy City crowned by the fruits - and the speech-song of each farmer as he stood in front of the altar with the offering to be handed to the kohen-priest. What an impressive demonstration of fealty to the Master of the Universe, who is thereby recognized as the Provider of all produce and the Sustainer of all sustenance. However, the drama of the first fruits seems to be emphasizing a far different truth than that of God the Ultimate Benefactor. The speech-song which accompanies the first fruits - an element unique to this particular commandment, and not even a factor in the giving of tithes - makes no reference to the Lord of the rains and the winds and the sun and the soil which produced these luscious fruits and sustaining grains. Instead, what is being highlighted is the Israelites' arrival in the Land of Israel after being enslaved and afflicted by the Egyptians. This quintessential early history of Israel goes one step further: it is recited by the individual in the first person ("My father was a wandering Aramean... The Egyptians... afflicted us... And He [God] gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Deut. 26:4-11) and makes the individual feel that the Land is his land. It is chiefly because of their brevity and total identification with Israel's historical past that these verses are co-opted for the Passover Seder. And if the drama of the Seder is tailor-made to express the truth that "in every generation, it is incumbent upon every individual to see himself as if he came out of Egypt," the drama of the first fruits is tailor-made to express a parallel truth - that "in every generation it is incumbent upon every individual to see himself as if he arrived in Israel." Indeed, just as the Passover Seder is "speech plus food," so is the First Fruits drama "speech plus fruits;" and just as the Haggada comes from the verse "And you shall tell your child [higadeta]" so does the speech-song of the first fruits open with the words, "I told [higadeti] this day to the Lord your God that I came to the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give to us" (Deut. 26:3). From this perspective I can understand why the first fruits are only to be brought from the seven species specifically identified with the Land of Israel (Deut. 8), and why only an individual who owns a portion of the Land on which the fruit actually grew is obligated to perform the commands. (This is unlike tithes, for example, which must be given by biblical command only on wine, grain and oil (universal staples), and by rabbinical command on all fruits and vegetables.) The first fruits are not so much about God's agricultural bounty as they are about God's gift of the Land of Israel to the nation of Israel. Indeed, in the 11 verses of the first fruits speech-song, the noun "land" appears no less than five times, and the verb "gift" no less than seven. To further cement the inextricable relationship between first fruits and the Land of Israel, Rabbi Elhanan Samet cites a comment by Rabbi Menahem Ziemba (Hiddushim, Siman 50) in the name of the Holy Ari that the commandment to bring the first fruits is a repair, a tikkun, for the sin of the scouts. Perhaps that is why the Mishna links the command specifically to the fig, grape and pomegranate ("If an individual goes into his field and sees a fig, a grape-cluster and/or a pomegranate which has/have ripened, he must tie them with a cord and state that these are to be first-fruits" - Mishna, Bikurim 1, 3) - precisely the three fruits which the scouts took back with them (Numbers 13:23). And the Bible relates to the scouts on their reconnaissance mission with the very same language that God commands the Israelites concerning the first fruits: Moses tells the scouts "And you shall take from the fruits of the land" (Numbers 13:20), "We came to the land... and it is even flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit" (13:27), and - in remarkably parallel fashion - God commands the Israelites, "And you shall take from the first of all the fruits of the land" (Deut. 26:2), "Because I have come to the land" (26:3), "And He gave to us this land flowing with milk and honey" (26:9). In effect, God is saying that we must bring precisely those fruits from that very special land which the scouts rejected, or at least lacked the faith to conquer. Rabbi Elhanan Samet goes one step further. The Mishna teaches that the first fruits are to be brought from Shavuot until Succot, from each area in Israel according to the ripening of their respective seven species (Mishna, Bikurim 1,10). And we are only commanded to do so when there is a Temple, requiring additional offerings as well as song and an overnight sleep in Jerusalem. In effect, the bringing of the first fruits is a fourth Pilgrimage Festival, the festival which celebrates our entry into the Land. It was just this realization of a goal which was lacking in Passover, Shavuot and Succot; and what better way to celebrate our settlement of the land than by bringing its unique fruits and reliving our initial entry. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.