These and Those

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

[PCJE Dvar Torah] The Lesson of Bikurim: Gratitude in Transition

Posted on September 12, 2014 by Dita Ribner Cooper

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Dita Ribner CooperFor many of us at Pardes, the past few weeks have been marked by transition. We have arrived in a new place, moved into new apartments, met new teachers, roommates, and friends, explored new texts for the very first time, and have been awed and overwhelmed by the wealth of opportunities Pardes has to offer us. We have broken our teeth trying to ask for items in the supermarket in Hebrew, gotten lost on a Jerusalem bus line, and have purchased new Jewish books we had never heard of a few weeks ago. Even for those who are returning for their second year or thirty-eighth year, the beginning of this school session has been a transition, one that holds all of the excitement and mysteries of what is about to unfold.

Transition is a natural and necessary part of life. After all, we can never progress if we do not change from time to time. Yet all major transitions, whether personal, familial, or communal, can tend to be quite difficult. Even if we are excited about “the next step,” simply being new at something is often a challenging feat, one that many of us struggle with at least in the beginning of the process. In reflecting on transition, I could not help but wonder if there is any wisdom in our tradition that speaks to the challenge of transitional moments and can shed light on our own personal transitions as we come to the close of week two at Pardes.

Happily, I believe that this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, holds some of this wisdom for us. Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the words:

וְהָיָה, כִּי-תָבוֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה; וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ. וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל-פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ–וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא; וְהָלַכְתָּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם

(דברים כ”ו:א–ב)

“It shall be when you come to the land that God your God is giving to you as an inheritance, you shall inherit it and settle in it. You shall take from the first fruit of the ground which you will bring from your land that God your God is giving to you. You shall put it in a basket. You shall go to the place that God your God will choose to establish God’s name there” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).

In these verses, we are presented with what is perhaps the greatest transition that the Israelite people faced after the Exodus from Egypt, namely, the entering and settling of the Land of Israel. I, for one, cannot imagine the enormity of transitioning from being part of a wandering nation in the desert for forty years, and then suddenly being called upon to become a conqueror and ultimately a stationary worker of the land. I probably would be thinking, “What do you mean by ‘inherit and settle’ the land? How is that going to work? How am I supposed to know how to cultivate fruit? And where is this place that “God has chosen to establish God’s name there?” In short, the expectation to settle the land of Israel and bring the first fruits, known in our tradition as the bikurim, seems like quite the transition.

Yet if we look closer at the text for a moment, we may be able to find some wisdom in this transitional moment after all. Firstly, we must ask ourselves, why are the Israelite people instructed to bring bikurim in the first place? Shouldn’t they get some down-time to settle in before needing to worry about fruit? In some senses, this would make the most sense. But if we look to the core of what the mitzvah of bikurim is all about, perhaps bringing bikurim is one of the most helpful things the Israelites can do in this transitional moment.

At the essence of bringing bikurim is the expression of gratitude. One is expected to plant the fruit tree, cultivate it, watch it grow, harvest its fruits, and then, instead of enjoying them by himself/herself, to bring the bikurim to the Temple to express gratitude to God for his/her bounty. At the moment of starkest transition, an individual is called upon to immerse his/herself in an experience in which s/he must acknowledge that which s/he is blessed with, and be grateful for what s/he has, even despite the difficulty of the transition that is surrounding the process. Yes, learning to settle the land and become a farmer could be overwhelming, but perhaps when we recognize the good that we have and are grateful for it, we are provided with an antidote to ease the challenge of transition.

Many transitions are hard, yet I believe strongly, and feel reaffirmed by these verses, that having an attitude of gratitude is one of the best ways to support ourselves and others when transitions occur. As we continue to transition into Pardes, get used to our classes, form closer connections with our new friends and teachers, and take advantage of the special community held in these walls, may we all be blessed with much to be grateful for and may we take the lesson of bikurim with us to express our gratitude whenever we possibly can.