Ki Tavo: First Fruits on the Way to Jerusalem

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo

Late Elul greetings to one and all! Although the Days of Awe are just
days away (uh. . yikes!), in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we
encounter a text more associated with Pesach than Rosh Hashanah
(although it’s entirely possible that it was my Thursday ritual of
visiting the farmer’s market that explains our learning this week.)
Here’s the passage at the beginning of the parsha:

“And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God,
gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,
that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which
you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving
you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which
the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there.”
(D’varim/Deuteronomy 26:1-2)

Thus begins a famous commandment to bring the first fruits of the
harvest to Jerusalem, where one would make a declaration of
thankfulness for all the goodness and blessing God has shown the
people Israel, from the days before the Egyptian slavery until the
very day the blessing is offered. This text becomes part of the
Passover haggadah, but for today, I’m more interested in the first
part of the ritual, in which one takes first fruits [bikkurim] and
gathers them up in a basket to be brought to Jerusalem.

Our good friend Rashi, quoting the Talmudic tractate [called Bikkurim-
duh!] devoted to the ritual of the first-fruits, explains that “taking
of the first of all the fruit of the ground” is actually a process
that begins before the produce is put in the basket. According to this
view, the farmer actually takes an action to designate fruits while
they are still on the tree by tying a reed around a ripening fig (for
example), and saying “this is the first-fruit.” That fruit or produce
is later harvested, put in the basket in one form or another, and
taken to Jerusalem for the ritual of thankfulness.

What struck me about Rashi’s explanation is the thoughtfulness that
goes into the process; it’s not that one suddenly arrives in Jerusalem
ready to give thanks, but rather one has a steady discipline of
creating the conditions under which the pilgrimage to Jerusalem is one
that can result in a great feeling of thankfulness and connection to
the people, land and God of Israel.

The Mishna- by way of Rashi- points out that spiritual experiences
don’t always “just happen,” but are instead cultivated and nurtured. I
think of my own life, and wonder if the contemporary equivalent to
tying the reed around the ripening figs, designating them as
first-fruits, wouldn’t be to plan ahead to create the times and places
where my sense of spiritual connection can unfold. Obviously, we have
Shabbat every week, and times for daily prayer, but setting aside time
to prepare for Shabbat, or putting bikkur holim [visiting the sick] or
Torah study into one’s calendar in advance- preparing the way for the
experience- is probably a key factor in the spiritual discipline. It’s
where the date palm meets the Palm Pilot!

Not many people reading this are farmers with fig trees or grape
vines, but all of us have resources (time, money, energy, compassion,
skills, etc.) to share and at least a few blessings for which to be
grateful. Giving and thanking are fundamentals of a spiritual
orientation, but like first fruits, these practices develop over time,
and connect us to God and each other when we’ve made ourselves ready.

Shabbat Shalom,

rnjl

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