Words are for a reason. Nothing in the Torah is superfluous or incredibly obvious. So when I notice the repeated use of a word that tells me something rather silly, I take that as a challenge to find the deeper meaning.
This week’s Torah portion, ”Ki Savo”, starts out by describing the laws of “Bikkurim”, which are the laws of bringing the first fruits to the Priests in the Temple. But the description seems like it was written for children. We are commanded to place our fruits into a “basket” and then, we are told, that when we get to the Temple, the priest will take our “basket” from our hand.
Really? Exactly how many container choices existed in the ancient world that would permit a person to transport fruit a long distance in the desert? And am I a child that I have to be told by a super parent to “put my fruits in a basket and now hand the basket to the nice man in the Temple?” How is this meaningful and what relevance can this possibly have to my life today?
While the Land of Israel produces numerous fruits and vegetables, only the 7 species for which the Land of Israel is specifically praised in the Torah are brought to the Temple. Israel was “a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, and pomegranates; a land of oil olives and date honey.” You could say that in some mystical way, these 7 species are the Land of Israel’s “signature strengths”.
We all have certain positive traits, qualities, and abilities. There is a subset of these attributes, however, known as our “signature strengths” that are our own unique combination of abilities that when utilized, empower us to make our lives happier, more meaningful and fulfilled.
These strengths are not the “should” and “coulds” but those positive aspects of ourselves that we are in our bones where can’t really be any other way. As fundamental to our core as they are, however, we don’t always know what these strengths are, and therefore, they are underutilized.
To uncover them, you don’t have to spend years in therapy, or travel to the Himalayas. You need only go on-line to this website from the University of Pennsylvania, Authentic Happiness, click on the questionnaire tab and take the VIA Strengths test. Really – go do it and you will get to know yourself in a different way.
Merely knowing what your signature strengths are, however, is not enough. You have to be conscious and deliberate about it. When the farmer went into his fields and noticed the first buds to break, the first flower blossoms and then the emerging fruit, he tied a cord around the fruit and proclaimed that it was designated as a first fruit to be brought to the Temple. Otherwise, how could he know which fruits were which when he was harvesting? So we have to notice, to pay attention, and honor our signature strengths, so as to draw on them.
As for a basket, which is lightweight, has holes for ventilation, and allows the fruit to lie in it without getting bruised, etc., we have to “carry” our strengths in a way that they are properly nurtured and used. All strengths have a flip-side that is a weakness. For example, one of my strengths is creativity, but I am easily bored by what I have to do to implement my ideas. Leadership is a strength – but it can also dis-empower others. Kindness is a strength, but it can also enable dysfunction and blind us to problems, etc.
Utilizing strengths to accomplish goals and develop resilience is a powerful act. But we must be conscious and bounded, so as not to use our strengths in a way that hurts us – and others. When we hand the basket to the priest – who takes it from our hand – the idea is that we are using our strengths in the service of others, in connection with something bigger than ourselves, and as part of our connection to God. Then it becomes an act of transcendence, which gives our lives deeper meaning, fulfillment and purpose. It’s the difference between being self-serving and serving God.
And that’s the essence of “Bikkurim”, to understand that everything we have is from God . Your signature strengths are a gift from God to you. But how you use your signature strengths is your gift back to God. What are your first fruits and are you carrying them well?