Adapted by Matan Glidai
Translated by Kaeren Fish
The mitzva of bikkurim
Commenting on the verse, “And you shall come to the Kohen who shall be in those days, and you shall say to him…” (Devarim 26:3), Rashi explains: “For you are not ungrateful.”
The foundation of the mitzva of bikkurim (first fruits) is gratitude: a person recognizes that it is with God’s help that he succeeded in growing his crop of fruit, and he now offers his thanks.
At the beginning of Chapter 29, Moshe describes God’s kindness towards Bnei Yisrael in Egypt and in the wilderness. In the midst of this description he says, “Yet the Lord has not given you a heart to perceive and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this day” (Devarim 29:3). The Gemara explains that Moshe is hinting to Bnei Yisrael that they are ungrateful towards God:
“Moshe said to Israel: You are ingrates, children of ingrates… ‘Ingrates’ – as it is written, ‘And our soul loathes this measly bread’; ‘children of ingrates’ – as it is written, ‘The woman whom you placed with me – she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’” (Avoda Zara 5a)
Am Yisrael describes the manna provided by God’s mercies as “measly bread,” just as Adam, in the Garden of Eden, had depicted the woman given to him as a ‘helpmate opposite him’ as having been the cause of his sin.
Many of the great mussar teachers, and Jewish philosophers of all generations, have viewed the principle of showing gratitude as one of the pillars of Judaism. They have argued that a person’s Divine service should be based on the recognition that God has performed many kindnesses for him, and that He deserves gratitude. The Chovot ha-Levavot introduces the chapter on Service of God with the assertion that just as every person must deal well with someone who has dealt well with him, so we must serve God, Who has done so much for us. Rav Kook, too, in his Ein AY”H, discusses gratitude as a central foundation of Judaism.
Gratitude in our generation
However, it is perhaps unwise to base Judaism mainly on gratitude, especially in our generation. First, a person might come to think that he must serve God to the extent that he has received good from Him. This would lead to a situation in which Am Yisrael serves God not as a nation, but rather as individuals: everyone would have his own ‘direct line’ to God, and each person would serve God because of and to the extent of the kindness that God showed him personally.
Second, it is difficult to base Divine service on the principle of gratitude after the Holocaust. After witnessing such evil, it would be hypocritical and obsequious to make gratitude the basis for serving God. Of course, we must be thankful to God at all times and be grateful for all that He gives us, but we must also remember that that is not the reason for our serving Him. Rather, we serve God because of the truth, because that is what is right.
Iyov declares, in one of his monologues, “Though He slay me, yet I will trust in Him… for a hypocrite shall not come before Him” (Iyov 13:15-16). Iyov proclaims that he trusts in God even if He slays him. His Divine service is not based on God showing kindness towards him. God does not like falseness. Someone who is suffering and who nevertheless serves God because He is good towards him, is being false. In the Holocaust, people reached the point where they were no longer afraid of death – just like Iyov; building their faith on the idea that God was good towards them was meaningless.
The national perspective
Clearly, none of the above negates the gratitude that we must feel towards God – as emphasized in the mitzva of bikkurim. Attention should be paid to the nature of the gratitude in this mitzva. We might have expected that someone who brings his first fruits should list all the favors that God showed him, from the moment he sowed the seeds until he harvested the fruit: there was sufficient rain, the produce grew well, etc. However, the declaration prescribed by the Torah expresses nothing of this. Instead, it reviews the favors shown by God to Am Yisrael in the past:
“A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt… and the Lord brought us out of Egypt… and He gave us this land – a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Devarim 26:5-9)
The bearer of the bikkurim might be standing at the Temple and reciting these words hundreds or even thousands of years after the entry into the land; nevertheless, he is obligated to make mention of it. A person must speak to God as an individual who is part of the nation; he must make requests on behalf of the nation, and express gratitude for what God has done for the nation as a whole. A person should not try to create a ‘direct line’ to God that is based on his own private life.
The Midrash Tanchuma, at the beginning of our parasha, teaches:
“Inspired by the Divine spirit, Moshe foresaw that the Temple was destined to be destroyed, and the bikkurim to cease. So he made a rule for Israel that they should pray three times each day.” (Tanchuma, Devarim 26:1)
What does the thrice-daily prayer service have to do with bikkurim? In the three daily prayers a person does not ask for himself, but rather for the entire nation: he prays for the ingathering of the exiles, the restoring of judges, the rebuilding of Jerusalem, etc. While there is room for personal expression and mention of one’s personal problems and concerns, the essence of the prayer deals with the nation. The fixed prayer helps Am Yisrael feel itself as a single unit and serve God as such. In this sense it replaces the bikkurim, since the recitation over the bikkurim created the same feeling.
(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Ki Tavo 5756 .)