Midrash Tanchuma Ki Tavo: The illusion of working the land

Midrash Tanchuma reveals a hidden dimension to the elaborate and emotional ceremony of bringing “Bikkurim” (First Fruits) to the Temple in Jerusalem.  Let’s first get reacquainted with the life of a Jewish farmer. Every day towards the end of the growing season, they would go out to their vineyards and groves with great excitement to check whether any fruits had  ripened. Specifically the fruits mentioned in the Torah when the land of Israel was praised as:

“A land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey” (Deuteronomy 8:8)

A beautiful description of the entire ceremony is found in the Mishnah: (Bikkurim, Chapter 3), starting with the designation of the First Fruits:

A person goes down into their field, and sees a fig that ripened, or a cluster of grapes that ripened, or a pomegranate that ripened, they tie a reed around it and proclaim: “Let these be Bikkurim!.” (First Fruits)…Early in the morning the one leading the pilgrimage would declare: “Let us arise and go up to Zion, to the house of the Lord our God” (Jeremiah 31:5).

The Mishna goes on to describe the spirited parade of farmers from all over the country streaming to the Temple in Jerusalem:

“…An ox would go in front of them, its horns adorned with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them until they would draw close to Jerusalem. …All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand before them and greet them saying, “Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace…..The flute would play before them, until they reached the Temple Mount. When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court…”

In the Temple each person would declare the famous passages of “Arami Oved Avi” (Our Forefather, Jacob, worked for a swindler, Laban. This declaration is so central to our faith, it is the centerpiece of our Passover Haggadah. It starts with a brief history beginning with Jacob’s confrontation with his nefarious, brother-in-law, Laban, all the way to freedom from the Egyptian bondage and settling the Promised Land. It was a declaration of certainty that G-d is the source of all material blessing. An expression of joy for all the goodness. A clarity of purpose that G-d brought us to Israel to lead an exalted, spiritual life guided by the precepts and moral teachings of theTorah. It culminates with these words: 

Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the land You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, that You took an oath (to bequest) to our Fore-Fathers.” (Deuteronomy 26:15)

Midrash Tanchuma adds one critical piece of information. Upon finishing this lofty declaration of faith. After enumerating that all the tithes were properly distributed to sustain those in need, including the poor, the orphans and the widows. The bearer of the First Fruits audaciously declares:  

“I am not moving from here until You take care of all my needs on this day going forward (until next year)’…. (The sage) Resh Lakish said,“A heavenly voice comes forth and responds: You shall  be blessed with the same bounty next year so that you can repeat today’s ceremony in the coming year.

The eleventh miracle of the Temple

This means that all the planting, plowing, harvesting. All the investment in heavy equipment (mules) and hiring of laborers and building of storehouses. It’s all an illusion. G-d has already promised a bountiful outcome for the coming year.  

The Talmudic tractate “Ethics of our Fathers” (5:7) lists 10 miracles that occurred daily during the First Temple era.  Among them are the fact that: Rain never extinguished the fire on the altar. The column of smoke from the alter always rose straight up, regardless of winds blowing. No matter how crowded it was, everyone had enough room to bow down during services. No one in Jerusalem was ever harmed by a serpent or scorpion. No person ever said, “There isn’t enough space for me to stay overnight in Jerusalem.” Midrash Tanchuma added an 11th. You can force the hand of G-d. You can secure a divine guarantee of a bountiful harvest.  

Does prayer have that power today

Midrash Tanchuma shares a bitter-sweet revelation that Moshe received. G-d shared with him that the First and Second Temple of Jerusalem would be destroyed. Not only would there be no more sacrifices, the powerful prayer which was the culmination of the Bikkurim ceremony would also come to an end. To take its place, Moshe instituted our three daily prayers and declared that they are more powerful than sacrifices and good deeds. 

Can our prayers today force G-d’s hand just as those farmers did when they brought their First Fruits? We know for certain that  G-d hears every prayer. Midrash Tanchuma offers the following advice to assure that your prayers are not rejected. 

“When you pray to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, you shall not have two hearts, One (heartfelt prayer) directed to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and one (heartfelt prayer) directed to another source (that you believe controls your destiny)”

This is a lot harder than it sounds. 

The Midrash is suggesting that you have to believe with all your heart that G-d is running the show. Not your boss. Not the Stock market. You can certainly pray to  G-d that all goes well at work and with your portfolio. Indeed you should. As long as you accept that if things don’t go your way, it’s  from G-d and it’s all for the best. 

A commentary on Midrash Tanchuma (Kol Haremez) put it succinctly, quoting a famous dictum from our sages:  “Rachmana Liba boiy.” Meaning, in addition to your intellect and your deeds in fulfilling the precepts of the Torah, “G-d wants your heart.” 

Can you infuse your prayers with the excitement of the Jews when they discovered a ripened fruit and tied a ribbon around it proclaiming: “Let these be Bikkurim.” (First Fruits)? Can you feel G-d’s presence as much as those farmers who carried their baskets of First Fruits into the Temple? Can you rejoice in the blessings that you already have? Perhaps this is the way to achieve such a close connection with G-d that you too can transform your work into an illusion.

About the Author
After college and Semicha at Yeshiva University my first pulpit was Ogilvy where I wrote TV commercials for brands like American Express, Huggies and Duracell. My passion is Midrash Tanchuma. I am an Architect of Elegant Marketing Solutions at www.mindprintmarketing.com. We are living in (where else) the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
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