“Zero to One” Parashat Ki Tavo 5780

The first verses of the portion of Ki Tavo discuss the procedure of Bikkurim – the donation of the first fruits. Each year, a farmer must take his first fruits[1] to Jerusalem where he brings them to the altar and gives them to the Priests (Kohanim). When the farmer hands over his Bikkurim to the Kohen, he must recite a selection of verses known as “Mikra Bikkurim” – “The Declaration of the First Fruits”. The declaration is familiar to anyone who has ever sat at a Pesach Seder as the Maggid section of the Seder is built around these same verses [Devarim 26:5-10]: “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. The Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labour upon us. We cried out to G‑d and He heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. G-d brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, O G-d, have given to me.”

What is the connection between the Pesach Seder and a farmer’s first fruits? There are actually two questions at play here: The first question is why does the Torah require the farmer who brings his first fruits to first recite the Pesach story? The second question is the inverse of the first question: Why does the Pesach Seder revolve around the verses recited when first fruits are brought to Jerusalem? These questions have been asked and answered by a wide array of commentators over the years. For instance, Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, the leader of Orthodox Jewry in North America in the previous century, suggests that Bikkurim and the Pesach Seder share the same motif, that of gratitude (hakarat hatov). Let’s take a closer look at the scripture and see if we can unearth another motif.

The commandment of Bikkurim is repeated three times in the Torah. The first time that Bikkurim is introduced, the Torah commands [Shemot 23:19] “The choice first fruits of your soil (Reishit bikkurei admat’echa) you shall bring to the house of G-d”, using a grammatical variant of the word “Bikkurim”. Similar wording appears in the other locations in the Torah in which Bikkurim appears. There is one exception: In the Torah’s discussion of Mikra Bikkurim, it does not use the word “Bikkurim”. Instead, it refers to them only as [Devarim 26:2,10] “Reishit pri ha’adama”. Why is the word “Bikkurim” left out?

To answer this question, we must look at the etymological source of the words “Bikkurim” and “reishit”. The Hebrew word “Bikkurim” comes from the word “bechor” – “first-born”. The same word “bechor” can be used to describe a first-born human, a first-born animal, or a first born pomegranate. The word “reishit” means “first”, full stop. The best example of “reishit” is the first time it is used in the Torah, in the very first verse of the Torah [Bereishit 1:1] “In the beginning (Be’reishit), G-d created the heavens and the earth” Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, writes that “In the beginning” means “In the beginning of time; this is the first moment which is indivisible into shorter periods.. There had not been a concept of time previous to this, i.e. there had only been unbroken continuity”. “Reishit” signifies a quantum change.

The concept of “reishit” is best explained by Peter Thiel[2] in his best-selling “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future”. Thiel maintains that in order to succeed economically, we must create new things. If we continue to refine and to improve what already exists, then technology will stagnate. Only companies that break new ground will be able to succeed. Thiel calls the process by which something new is created as “going from zero (non-existent) to one (existent)”. He writes, “Progress can be either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal progress results from duplicating success – going from 1 to n. This kind of progress is easy to envision because it looks a lot like the present. Vertical progress requires doing something entirely new – going from 0 to 1. It’s more difficult to envision because we’ve never seen it before.” “Zero to one” signifies a quantum change.

Hold on – what is so “zero to one” about Bikkurim? Bikkurim are given not only from the first fruits that the tree gives in its lifetime. They are given each and every year. Why? At the end of the day, it is the same tree and the same pomegranates that we gave as Bikkurim the year before. The only thing that has changed is the year. Nevertheless, by referring to the Bikkurim as “reishit”, the Torah is deliberately accentuating the novelty of our first fruits. These fruits are not merely “this year’s crop”. They should be perceived as something that did not exist before, something entirely new. I suggest that it is this vertical progress that connects Bikkurim to the holiday of Pesach.

Everyone knows why we celebrate the holiday Pesach. Pesach commemorates the exodus from Egypt, the end of slavery, and the creation of Am Yisrael – the Jewish Nation. Now ask why we celebrate the holiday Sukkot. The Torah answers [Vayikra 23:43] “So that your generations should know that I housed the Jewish People in huts (sukkot) when I took them out of Egypt”. It appears that Sukkot and Pesach are really one and the same. Both are commemorating the exodus from Egypt. But if that is the case, why not bundle the two holidays up into one “super-holiday”, where we eat matzo in the sukkah and shake the lulav at the Seder?

The answer lies in understanding that although Pesach and Sukkot are both commemorating the same event, they are commemorating two very different aspects of that event. The exodus from Egypt took place in two phases. The first phase was the actual release from bondage. After years of slavery, the Jewish People had developed a slave mentality that had become so ingrained in their psyche that redemption was nearly impossible. Our Sages in the Midrash teach that a full eighty percent of the Jewish People died in Egypt during the plague of darkness because they were unwilling or unable to be redeemed. Pesach celebrates the severing of the umbilical cord that bound the Jewish People to the Egyptians. It celebrates the exiting of one existence and the entering into another. Accordingly, we refer to Pesach as “Z’man heruteinu”, our time of freedom.

The grand finale of the exodus was the splitting of the Reed Sea (Yam Suf). The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [2b] teaches that the splitting of the sea was one of the most difficult things that G-d ever did. Why should G-d find this so difficult? Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk and in Jerusalem in the last century explains by saying that anyone can split water. Just stick your hand in a tub of water and you will split it. The hard part is keeping the water divided even after you take your hand out of the tub. This is where Sukkot comes in. Pesach is a “one shot deal” – a quantum leap. Even had another eighty percent of the Jewish People died in the desert, and indeed a large number did die there, we would still celebrate Pesach. Sukkot, on the other hand, celebrates the second phase of our redemption – how G-d protected the Jewish People in the desert, day in and day out, for forty years. Pesach commemorates the leaving of Egypt. Sukkot commemorates a new existence after leaving Egypt. Pesach commemorates vertical progress. Sukkot commemorates horizontal progress.

Each year at the Pesach Seder, we celebrate G-d’s infinite ability to take us from zero to one. Each year when we offer Bikkurim, we are celebrating that very same ability. And each day we pray that G-d will take us yet again from zero to one, when He redeems us from our exile, speedily in our days.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] Bikkurim is given from the first fruits of the Seven Species with which the Land of Israel was blessed: Grapes, dates, figs, olives, and pomegranates.

[2] Peter Thiel is a billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist best known for being the cofounder of PayPal and the first outside investor into Facebook. A few years ago I merited an hour of one-on-one time with him. I found him to be one of the most intelligent and intuitive people I have ever met.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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