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When you come into the Land that … G-d gives you as an inheritance… you shall take of the first fruits of the earth… and place them in a basket, and go to the place which… G-d will choose to place His name. You will respond and declare, “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with a few people, and became a great nation there… The Egyptians… imposed hard labor on us … We cried out to G-d… and He heard… He brought us out from there… to this place… a land flowing with milk and honey… Behold! I have brought these first fruits…” (26:1-10 - extracts).
The above declaration is the first formal one in the Torah that may be pronounced by any Israelite. Why did the Torah select the first fruits – out of all the Temple offerings – for a ceremony with a standard formula? Why did the Torah not leave its exact wording to the discretion of the person bringing the first fruits?
Furthermore, the actual text of the declaration seems out of tune with the bringing of the first fruits. It does not say, as might be expected, “Thank you G-d for enabling me to grow these fruits,” or “Thank you for giving me safe passage to Jerusalem.” Instead, it expounds on the painful and miraculous transformation of the Patriarchs, though generations, into the Israelites nation…
In addition, the Talmud rules that this declaration forms the text of a different ceremony, at a different time of the year – namely the annual recalling of the Exodus on Seder night. Of all the possible texts in the Bible that recount the Exodus, why should this – from a different context – be the one that was chosen?
As an approach to these issues, look at the injunction following the above declaration,
You shall rejoice with all the goodness that G-d… has given you and your household – you and the Levite and the stranger who is among you (ibid:11).Note the details of this verse. It does not say anything about the first fruits - the cause of the farmer’s traveling to Jerusalem. The cause of the rejoicing should be “all the goodness that G-d has given… to you and to your household.” And, as Ibn Ezra expounds, the Israelite must include the economically disadvantaged Levite and needy in celebrating his good fortune.
Elsewhere in the Parasha (on 28:47), Rav Kook looks into the deeper meaning of the happiness needed to serve G-d. The Torah there brings the ideal that a person should serve G-d ‘with happiness and a good heart’. He explains that mere ‘simcha’ - happiness - is a particular feeling at that moment, but not an overall emotional condition. A person may experience happiness one day and revert to being a complaining grouch the next day.
Rav Kook gives a deeper meaning of happiness. He writes that a person’s state of happiness must be harmonized with all the other components of an individual’s personality.
In this case, the ceremony of the first fruits should induce a state of overall harmony. That is why it does not state ‘you shall rejoice with the goodness that G-d… has given to you…’, but ‘you shall rejoice with all the goodness that G-d… has given to you’. The happiness in bringing the first fruits to the Temple must be a cause of inducing the farmer to be happy with all his good fortune. It must leave a happy impression on his entire personality and outlook.
Let us look at how the declaration actually does that. In doing so, consider the background of the Israelite farmer, and his connection with the Israelite nation and its teachings.
Of all the many trades and professions, farming is conceivably the most lonely and restrictive. Day after day, dawn to dusk, the Israelite farmer worked his fields, usually by himself. His situation was, and is, subservient to the land. Unlike those living in towns and cities, engaging in business or other professions, the farmer possesses minimal control over the forces of nature that affect his crops. He can neither choose to take a day off or hurry up the natural growing forces. He is also a slave to time. He lives in the present. His cycle of time flows from season to season, and can be unpredictable as the weather may change unfavorably when least wanted. Years of his being subservient to the weather, climate, growing conditions, long hours, and hard physical may well bring him to a slave mentality.
This mentality causes a person to lose touch with his roots – what forms the very psychological basis of his identity. This is illustrated from the following extract from the Talmud (Baba Bathra 21a).
Indeed! Remember that man, Joshua ben Gamla for good. For if not for him, the Torah would have been forgotten from Israel.Virtually nothing is known about Joshua ben Gamla apart from that passage, which brings the tradition that he set up an educational system by which children would be intensively instructed in Torah from the tender age of six. The implication is that the Torah was known to fewer and fewer people during the later Persian and Hellenist periods in Israel because the Jews were predominantly farmers – eking a precarious living from the land. This by itself induced a slave mentality within the general community… The total energies and time invested in working the land leave little or no time for other activities. The farmer’s occupation promotes forgetting one’s traditions and one’s roots… Indeed, history shows that virtually all cultures are urban phenomena.
Thus farming may in many ways be seen as a return to slavery except that nature, rather than a human being, is the slave-master. True, the farmer would have kept the basic precepts and practices, but without any understanding of their real nature – rather like certain Catholic families in Spain who to this day light candles on Friday night saying that it is a family tradition, but ignorant of their pre-1492 conversos Jewish roots.
This principle helps to explain the issues raised. In prescribing the set text and declaration for the first fruits ceremony, the Torah shows deep sensitivities to the circumstances specific to those who grow the first fruits – namely the farmers. Because they virtual slaves to the land, they have little time for other activities – and all too often that can include Torah learning. The set formula eases the embarrassment the farmer may feel were he to be required to make up his own words for the occasion. It is also a simple, to the point, text which can be understood by a child and the unlearned farmer on one hand, and by a scholar in much greater depth on the other hand. It is thus ideal for both the farmer bringing the first fruits, and for the parents and children expounding the on the events and miracles of the Exodus on the other.
However the farmer must be reminded that his purpose in life is not only to perform hard labor (a message that may apply to today’s urban workaholic as well). He must not be such a slave to the land that there is no room for anything else – including linking himself to the Infinite Force responsible for his well-being in the first place – represented by the Torah and its teachings. In short, he is not a slave – he is a free man, and the Torah expects him to be part of the free Israelite’s world. That is why it takes him to his roots – saying, effectively, “You were once really slaves. You forgot your traditions, and had no direction in life other than surviving from one day to the next. You are not in that position today! By your bringing the first fruits you have demonstrated that you are not a slave, but a free man. So live like a free man – by all means work a full life as a farmer, but leave time over for the other essentials including Torah learning and observance in the widest sense – for this is the very fundamental of your being.”
So when a farmer, suitably impressed, returns and resolves to leave a more balanced life according to the Torah – based on the realization of his good fortune and G-d’s role in enabling him to bring first fruits in the first place, he will be really able to rejoice – as a happier person. His life will have more harmony as he develops the faith to include other important activities in his life – include Torah study – and it will lead to a happier, more fulfilled, and better balanced individual. In short, it leaves a happy impression on his entire personality and outlook.
This D’var Torah is written in loving memory of my dearest Mother, Harabanit Devora Solomon ztl. who ascended to the Yeshiva Shel Ma’ala on Shabbat Ki Tavo four years ago. May her memory be blessed and be a source of blessings.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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