These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PCJE] Ki Tavoh: First Fruits and New Beginnings

Posted on September 11, 2014 by Binyamin Cohen

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Night Seder Chevrutas Binyamin Cohen and David Wallach
join together to reflect on this week's parshah, Ki Tavo.

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.51.44 AMדְּבָרִים  כו:ב, ה

ב  “וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ–וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא; וְהָלַכְתָּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם…

ה וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.”

2: “You shall take the first of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that God your Lord is giving you. You will place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose, to rest his name there.

5: “You will answer and say before God your Lord, ‘my ancestor was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt, and dwelt there, few in number; and there became a great nation, powerful and many.’”

These verses, which appear at the beginning of our parshah, deal with two separate topics. The first verse deals with the commandment for farmers to bring their first fruits to the Temple. The second verse, which begins the formal declaration the farmer makes as part of the first fruit ceremony, mainly recounts our national history. The question is, what do these two things have to do with one another? Furthermore, without a Temple or first fruits, what does this connection mean for us?

The first fruits are a unique sacrifice, in the way that we bring them, treat them, and in the way that the Torah describes them. The words רֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה are a significant formulation; רֵאשִׁית is a word of beginning, of commencement. In this context, the commentators, namely Sforno, understand רֵאשִׁית as also being the best. We know that the first fruits aren’t always the best: the first apples to appear on the tree are often withered or small. So wait, is the Torah asking the farmer for his best or his first? Or is it both?

Further, in post-Temple life, bringing of “first fruits” must take on new meaning. They must function as two different lenses through which we view our daily lives. What the Torah is telling us is that If we know we are expected to bring our “best” to Someone Else, we become more conscious of everything we do. We begin to think, “is this my best? Could I do better?” As we do this, we program ourselves to strive for excellence. But what is the point of bringing to God? Isn’t our own satisfaction in our excellence enough? The Netivot Shalom discusses the idea that life is like a string of zeroes. You can write millions of zeroes, but they still add up to nothing. When we put a single One in front of those zeroes, they suddenly inherit great value. When we bring our lives closer to God, we bring God closer to the world. And when we do this, we bring greater value to our lives. This is why God wants our best.

But why does God want our first? In life, we have many firsts: first days of school, first days of the week, first months. God wants our firsts because, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” The way begin any endeavour sets the tone of the rest of the process. In the Torah’s ceremony of firsts, we talk about our origins, our national “firsts”. This shows us that just like our ancestor the wandering Aramean led us down to slavery, so too, our starts can affect our journeys. If we make the “wrong” start, we are putting ourselves on a “wrong” path. However, if we make the right the start, we can lead ourselves to success.

Each year on Rosh Hashanah, we have a chance to create a good first. Rabbi Mordechai of Lakhovits says that start of this season of renewal begins with Elul, and takes us through all of Tishrei. God’s world is designed to let us start again, and the Jewish year mirrors this. Each year, God gives us the רֵאשִׁית; the question is, will we give our best? Will we start the year off with focus and high expectations? How we start our year will guide us through to the next רֵאשִׁית. May we make all our beginnings good ones, and always have a best to give.

Based on teachings from Netivot Shalom, by Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky