Judaism: First Fruits, the Natural Spiritual Beginning
In Parshat Ki Tavo we learn of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim: "V’Lakachtah M’Reishit Pri Ha’Adamah" - "You shall take from the first fruits of the earth" .
Where else do we encounter a 'reishit' in the book of Devarim? In Parshat Shoftim there is a Mitzvah demanding that each Israelite bring gifts to the Kohanim: "The first of your grain, wine, and oil, and the first of the shearing of your flock shall you give him." (Devarim 18:4)
The offering of the first fruits (Bikkurim) and the tithing of the first grains, wine, oil and wool shearings both demand that the Jewish farmer relinquish what he may naturally desire most - the very first ripe crops of the season. The Rambam (Guide for the Perplexed 3:39) suggests that all mitzvot involving the offering of the "first" of what one possesses represent the recognition that God is the source of our bounty.
The Mitzvah of "Mikra Bikkurim" (Bikkurim Delcaration) indirectly exposes another type of 'reishit' (beginning) when the following verse is recited: "Arami Oved Avi…” - ”An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation – great, strong and numerous". The above interpretation of the phrase “Arami oved Avi” suggesting that Lavan attempted to uproot Jacob appears in early sources such as Onkelos, Sifre , and ultimately the Passover Haggadah as a focal point within the Maggid, story, section. Rashi also adopts this interpretation.
Other commentators explain that the verb 'oved' is intransitive (as rules of grammer indicate) therefore the reading would be: "My father was a wandering or destitute Aramean" and could refer to either Jacob or Abraham.
According to the first interpretation, Lavan attempted to destroy his son-in-law Jacob - but, how? It is true that Lavan pursued Jacob with evil intentions as Jacob and family secretly departed. In actuality Lavan did more damage to Jacob’s family through duplicity when he provided Leah as bride to Yaakov instead of Rachel. In doing so, he complicated Jacob's life immeasurably by causing him to marry two sisters. This led to conflict amongst Jacob's sons and ultimately to the going down to Egypt.
Later in history, rivalries between tribes led to civil war. There appears to be a clear motive for Lavan's actions. Namely that he did not believe that the younger daughter Rachel should be wed prior to the betrothal of his older daughter Leah. This would go against the natural order of events, without a doubt an oddity in the period in which the story occurs. Furthermore, Lavan's answer to Jacob: "Such is not done in our place, to give the younger before the elder" , implies that he was admonishing Jacob for his acquisition of the birthright at the expense of his older brother Esau (Radak). Lavan was moralizing to Jacob for tampering with the natural rights afforded by chronology – a ‘reishit’ of sorts.
In the nature-dominated pagan world the leadership roles, priestly duties and entitlement devolved on the firstborn sons. In contrast, the Torah suggests that chronology does not necessarily indicate superiority.
This is most clearly depicted in the stories surrounding the status allotted by virtue of the 'bechora' – being the first born; as opposed to the 'bechira' (or 'nivchar') – the one actually selected for a particular duty or mission based on intrinsic qualities and behavior. The most glaring examples are in the Book of Genesis regarding the roles ultimately assumed by Isaac and Jacob over Ishmael and Esau. Moreover, all first born Jewish males ('bchorot') were originally designated to service the Tabernacle and matters of sanctity yet after the sin of the Golden Calf, this responsibility was awarded to the Levites since the tribe of Levi remained loyal to God's command.
Based on the close proximity of Amalek, appearing at the end of Parshat Ki Tetze, and the Bikkurim, first fruits, at the beginning of Ki Tavo, the Sefat Emet (Ki Tavo, 5661) juxtaposes Amalek with Israel based on their quality of being a Reishit, being the first: Amalek is termed 'Reishit goyim' (the first among nations) ; and Israel who are referred to as Reishit: "Bereisheet bara - the world was created for the nation of Israel who are called reishit."
Israel, being a theocentric nation, manifests the quality of reishit by offering their first fruits to God - the true source of all Reishit. Amalek , the first among self-serving, anthropocentric nations, claims the first (or best) for himself and therefore is destined to come to naught.
The Mitzvah of Bikkurim presents an opportunity to use the first of nature in order to overcome human nature: The temptation exists for the farmer to enjoy his first fruits after the long winter months have passed. Instead he must bring them to the Temple and forfeit them. In doing so, he uses the most natural 'reishit' – the fruit of the earth, as a means to acknowledge his most primal moral obligation, his spiritual ‘reishit’ – to give thanks to God.
This thank you, it should be remembered, is really not for the fruit itself, rather it is a declaration of deep gratitude for all the good that God has bestowed upon him and especially for bringing him to the Land of Israel.
The "Torah MiTzion Kollel" program establishes centers for the study of Torah and promulgates the connection between Torah and Israel. These learning centers take the form of a Beit Midrash in which Torah scholars immerse themselves in study and practice of successes in enriching and enhancing Jewish communities around the world by promoting the lofty ideals of Torat Israel, Am Israel and Eretz Israel. The core of these Kollelim are young, recent graduates of the Hesder Yeshivot, where advanced Jewish study is combined with military service in the Israeli army. For more information, click here.