“To Recognize and to Thank” Parashat Ki Tavo 5774

It’s just an ordinary mitzvah. It requires no special equipment other than a tree. A person can perform most of the mitzvah without anyone else’s involvement. Yet for some reason, the mitzvah of Bikkurim – the yearly bringing the first fruits of the seven species[1] to Jerusalem – has become the Jewish version of the Brazilian Carnival. People bring their first fruits in a procession to Jerusalem, where it is festively given to the Kohanim. Just like in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade there are vibrant costumes, large colorful floats moving slowly down the street, banners waving in the wind, and people pushing to try to get a good view. What is so special about Bikkurim?

Rav Moshe Alsheich, writing in “Torat Moshe”, summarizes the goings-on in a most poetic manner: “A man leaves his home and his town and he walks to Jerusalem carrying a bunch of grapes or a few pomegranates or figs, or any other of the fruits for which the Land of Israel is praised. He places the fruit in a straw basket and carries it on his shoulders, whether he is rich or poor, even if he is King Agrippas. At every city they stop along the way the elders and judges of the city come to greet them, singing praises to Hashem. They make their way to the gates of Jerusalem, riding on oxen with horns covered in gold and decorated with olive branches. When they get to the gates of Jerusalem, they raise their voices in song [Tehilim 123:1]: ‘Our feet stood at your gates, O’Jerusalem!’ according to all that is written in the Mishnah [in Tractate Bikkurim]. But why are they making such a big deal over a less than a half-dinar’s worth of fruit?”

Rav Alsheich is asking a huge question. Each year a person gives more than twenty percent of his crops in tithes. One of these tithes is Ma’aser Sheni, in which about nine percent of a person’s produce is set aside to be eaten in Jerusalem. Here is how a modern Rav Alsheich would describe a person giving Ma’aser Sheni: “He takes the fruit, puts it in the back of his pickup truck, drives down Highway 6 to Jerusalem, perhaps stopping at the Netanya rest stop for a cup of coffee and a restroom break. He gets to Jerusalem, goes to the Tenuva[2] warehouse in Givat Shaul where he sells his fruit. He takes the money and goes to a fancy restaurant on top of the Mamilla Hotel where he buys an extravagant lunch. He gets back in his car and he drives home. He does this all by his lonesome, with no fanfare, no costumes, and no television coverage”. But here’s the thing: A person gives only one fortieth of his produce as Bikkurim. That’s about one quarter of what he gives in Ma’aser Sheni. Why does Bikkurim merit all the attention?

Bikkurim receives much more attention than just costumes, parades, and banners. The Pesach Haggadah is based on the words a person recites when he brings his Bikkurim, effectively binding together the mitzvah of Bikkurim with the exodus from Egypt and our birth as a nation. What is the connection between the two? Going back further in time, Bikkurim is alluded to in the very first verse in the Torah [Bereishit 1:1]: “Bereishit bara E-lokim” – “In the beginning Hashem created”. While the word “Bereishit” is usually translated as “In the beginning”, the Midrash in Bereishit Raba translates it as “Because of the first [fruits]”. In other words, the world was created because one day Am Yisrael would keep the mitzvah of Bikkurim and bring their first fruits to Jerusalem. Out of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, the world was created only because of this one?

Rav Alsheich answers his own question by directing us to the last verse in the mitzvah of Bikkurim [Devarim 26:11]: “Then you shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem has granted you and your household: you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” Imagine a group of farmers holding a party to celebrate an especially good harvest. “Why do you think we had such a bumper crop this year?” “There was lots of rain.” “Yes, and it fell at the right time.” “And the insects left us alone for once.” “And the temperatures were just right – not too hot and not too cold”. Here’s something that will most likely not be said: “The reason we had such a great harvest is because Hashem blessed us”. Ultimately this is the only reason. Hashem caused the rain to fall and the bugs to stay away. But because Hashem can’t be seen or measured, He is all too often overlooked. The mitzvah of Bikkurim forces us to stop and recognize that all that is good in this world comes from Hashem and we must thank Him for it. The fanfare with which the farmer takes his Bikkurim to Jerusalem unabashedly proclaims this to the world. In the Pesach Hagaddah we read that Hashem took Am Yisrael out of Egypt “not with the help of an angel or other heavenly being, but Hashem Himself [took us out]”. Hashem all did the heavy lifting. We must recognize this and we must thank Him. Similarly, Hashem created the world as a kindness to mankind. We must recognize this and we must thank Him. Judaism is based on the concept of “hakarat ha’tov”, the recognition that kindness has been performed. We must recognize not only great acts of kindness, like the creation of the world or the exodus from Egypt, but – especially – the small ones, like eating a sweet date or drinking a cold glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice. Each day a Jew wakes up and the first words out of his mouth are “Modeh Ani – I thank you, eternal Living King, for have returned to me my soul.” Rav David Fuchs likes to say that in the repetition of the Amidah the congregation is silent except for the Modim prayer that they read together with the chazzan. Rav David explains that when it comes to giving thanks – hoda’a – a person cannot rely on someone else, but he must do it himself.

Am Yisrael are recovering from a war in which over the course of seventy days nearly 3500 rockets were fired at the State of Israel. While most of these fell in unpopulated areas, nearly one thousand of them were poised to fall on houses, schools, and shopping malls. The Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted about ninety percent of them, preventing countless casualties and billions of dollars of damage, and giving the citizens of Israel a sense of security that gave the IDF time to destroy the Hamas terror infrastructure[3]. A story being circulated over the internet tells of how a rocket was fired on Tel Aviv and Iron Dome could not intercept it. Four seconds before impact a wind came and blew the rocket into the sea. This, it is claimed, was the “Hand of Hashem”. Aside from the fact that this story is physically impossible[4], it completely misses the point. Iron Dome is an extremely complex system doing an extremely complex task. The fact that it worked so well is the Hand of Hashem. Yes, there were brilliant and hard-working people who designed and operate it. But it didn’t have to work as well as it did. Hakarat ha’tov demands that we recognize Hashem’s kindness and give thanks.

There is another Iron-Dome-related kindness that must be mentioned. Iron Dome was developed in Israel by Israelis and completely paid for with Israeli Shekels. Not one US dollar was used to pay for the design and development. However, as soon as the system became operational in April 2011, and immediately proved its worth by intercepting eight out of nine rockets aimed at Ashkelon, the United States opened its heart and its wallet. From the Administration to the Senate to the House of Representatives, and with a lot of help from AIPAC, bi-partisan support for Iron Dome has been overwhelming. By the end of FY2015, more than $1.3 billion dollars will have been given to purchase more interceptors, launchers, and radars. In the last war, US-funded assets protected nearly 5 million people. Plain and simple: There are Israeli’s today who are alive only because of the beneficence of the people of the US. We recognize this kindness and we thank them.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5774

 

[1]Wheat, barley, grape, fig, pomegranate, olive, and date.

[2]Tenuva is Israel’s national food distributor.

[3]Whether or not sufficient damage was inflicted on the Hamas is irrelevant to this shiur.

[4]Look at a map and do the math. The rocket was supposedly aimed at the Azrieli Center, which lies 4 km from the sea. To blow the rocket 4 km in 4 seconds would have required a wind of 3600 kilometers per hour. This wind would have blown the Azrieli Center into the sea, as well.