The Bikkurim offering (the Offering of the First Fruit) must have been a religious highlight for those who farmed land in ancient Eretz Yisrael. It was a mark of pride and thankfulness to God as well as providing a connection to Israel’s sacred history and a sense of belonging to the people of Israel. It was a ritual with a long and glorious history, deeply embedded in the hearts of the people and was emblematic of the entire people’s relationship to the nation’s sacred center, the Temple in Jerusalem. (See Deuteronomy 26:1-16)
When catastrophe struck and the Temple was destroyed, this ritual, as well as all of the rituals associated with the Temple were lost. This could have been disastrous to the people’s faith and the cohesiveness of the nation if the rabbinic tradition had not met the challenge by finding other forms to fill in for the lost rituals. The sages asked themselves how would they be able to fulfill the following verse which ends the passage on bringing the first fruit:
The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and statutes (Deuteronomy 26:16)
In this late midrash (7th century), the sages lent authenticity to rabbinic practice by envisioning that Moshe prophetically foreshadowed both the nation’s tragic future and the remedies which would ensure its religious survival:
“The Lord your God commands you this day to observe.” (Deut. 26:16:) This text is related to “Come, let us bow down and bend, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker!” (Psalms 95:6)
But is not bending included in bowing down; and bowing down in bowing? So, what is meant by “let us bow down and bend and kneel down?” Moses foresaw, by way of the Holy Spirit (prophetically) that the Temple would be in the future destroyed and that the first fruits in the end would cease. So, he rose up and arranged for Israel to pray three times each day, for prayer is more beloved before the Holy One, blessed be He, than all of the good deeds and all of the sacrifices, for it is so written: “Take my prayer as an offering of incense, my upraised hands as an evening sacrifice.” (Psalms 141:2) And Moshe our teacher, despite his good deeds, since it was decreed that he would not enter the land, prayed and he said: “Please let me cross over and see [the good land].” (Deuteronomy 3:25) The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: “Enough from you; do not ever speak unto Me on this matter again. Go up to the top of Pisgah.” (Ibid. verses 26-27), it is therefore stated: “The Lord your God commands you this day to observe…” (Deuteronomy 26:16) (Tanhuma Ki Tavo 1)
The sages learned from the seeming redundancy of the terms “bending” and “bowing” in a verse from Psalms that two rituals were intneded, one for Temple times and one for post-Temple times and despite God’s rejection of Moshe’s prayer, God very much desired the people’s prayers and deeds.
Rashi sums up the message of this midrash in these words:
Each day, God’s commandments [should be seen, as if] they are something new, as if you received them anew this very day. (Rashi on 26:16)
Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, the third Gerer Rebbe (19th-20th century, Poland) takes this idea one step further, developing the connection between tefillah (prayer) and the first fruit offering. Quoting his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, he pointed out that each day’s prayers should be fresh and new as if they were first fruit. Thus, when each day a person offers new prayers before God, he or she is emulating God, who each day perpetually renews creation. (See Sefat Emet Ki Tavo 5631, Or Etzion ed. p. 195)
The effect of this idea is that prayer is not just an avenue for expressing gratitude for God’s divine graciousness, it is also an act of imitating God’s creativity – both an act of thanks and an act of partnership. What could be more Jewish than that!