The Meaning of the Mitzvah of Bikkurim
by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto Shlita
It is written, “It will be, when you enter the land that Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance…that you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground…. You shall come to the kohen who will be in those days…. The kohen shall take the basket from your hand” (Devarim 26:1-4).
These verses describe the mitzvah of bikkurim (first fruits). According to this mitzvah, after the land has been conquered and distributed among the Children of Israel, every year we must bring the seven types of fruit that are the glory of Eretz Israel. And not just any fruits, but the first fruits – the ones that appear first on a tree.
Sefer HaChinuch discusses the reasons for this mitzvah: “The profound significance of the mitzvah lies in placing Hashem’s word at the top of our joy. We must remember and know that every blessing in the world comes from Him. We have received the commandment to bring to those who serve in His House the fruits that have ripened first on His trees. We do this in recalling and accepting the yoke of His kingdom, and by thanking Him for these fruits and for all the other good things we receive from Him. We will then be worthy of a blessing, and there will be a blessing on our fruits” (Sefer HaChinuch 91).
This seems to contain something that requires additional thought. Pride is among the worst sins, and it can make a person lose his share in this world and the World to Come. Our Sages warn us about this in the Mishnah, stating that “Envy, lust, and honor-seeking drive a man from the world” (Pirkei Avoth 4:21). In the Gemara they go into greater detail: “Rabbi Elazar said, ‘Every man in whom there is pride deserves to be cut down like an Asherah [object of idolatrous worship]. ... Every man in whom pride dwells, his ashes will not arise [in the resurrection]’ ” (Sotah 5a). This means that the proud deserve death in this world and are not worthy of being resurrected in the future. The Sages add, “Rabbi Chisda – according to another version it was Mar Ukba – said: Every man in whom pride dwells, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world’ ” (Sotah 5a). G-d cannot, so to speak, dwell in the same world as him, the reason being that He detests every heart that is filled with pride, as it is written: “Every haughty heart is an abomination to Hashem” (Mishlei 16:5). Mussar books such as Sha’arei Teshuvah by Rabbeinu Yona and Messilat Yesharim by the Ramchal go into great detail on this subject.
Although the sin of pride is unfortunately widespread, being found among many people, the prevalence of pride is even greater among those who sow and harvest their fields. This can almost be expected, given that these people go to the trouble of working the earth all year round by watering and tilling it, along with all the difficulties that this entails. Hence it is natural that after so much effort, when such a person finally sees the result of his work, he will likely attribute it to his own efforts. He will consider it a personal achievement, a private success, and he will be inclined to think that “I put in the effort. I did all the work.”
It is therefore possible that the goal of the bikkurim is to teach us that we must eradicate such thoughts from our heart. Hence as soon as it is possible – as soon as the first fruits begin to grow and emerge on a tree – we are obligated to mark them off with some reed rope, as mentioned in the Mishnah, and say: “Let these be bikkurim” (Bikkurim 3:1).
That is why this order was given precisely at the time of the Children of Israel’s arrival in Eretz Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey, and described as “a land where you will eat bread without poverty; you will lack nothing there” (Devarim 8:9). It is precisely at such a moment, when a person is sitting beneath his vine and fig tree, that such abundance may lead him to pride, as the verse states: “Yeshurun grew fat and kicked” (ibid. 32:15).
Thus when a person would present his bikkurim, he would utter a vidui (confession) by recalling all the kindnesses of the Creator: “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Devarim 26:5). This teaches us that everything we have received, the land and its magnificent fruits, only comes by the merit of our holy Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They served Hashem with devotion by humbling and annulling themselves, and it was by their merit that we were able to escape from Egypt, from the house of slavery, and enter Eretz Israel. Nevertheless, everything was on condition that we study Torah and observe mitzvot, otherwise the Holy One, blessed be He, would exile us from our land, as it is written: “Let the land not vomit you out” (Vayikra 18:28). (Note: This may be the meaning of the expression ki tavo [“when you enter”], which has a numerical value of 403. It corresponds to the 400 years of exile and the three patriarchs, for it was by means of these two things – the Patriarchs and the hardships of exile – that the Children of Israel received the land.)
Reflecting further, I found other things that may also be explained in this way. Thus the Ohr HaChaim pondered the meaning of the phrase, “and you shall speak” (Devarim 26:5) and commented: “It may be that the term ve’anita [‘and you shall speak’] actually comes from the root oni [‘poverty’]. It is like a crude man for whom the king has done a great favor, and who comes before him like a beggar, pleading with a broken heart. Likewise it is fitting to humble oneself before Hashem.” Now this is clearly what it means, for the mitzvah of the first fruits consists of the fact that a person recognizes the greatness of the Creator and feels insignificant for having received such great kindness, like a poor man standing at the door. At that point, no pride is liable to enter his heart.
There is something else here, which Sforno notes in examining the words “the kohen who will be in those days.” It means, “Even if he is not great in wisdom, it does not prevent you from addressing him with respect.” In other words, even if you know that you are greater than the kohen, you must still humble yourself before him and bring him the bikkurim. That is what Sforno states.
Yet because of our many sins, we have been exiled from our country and find ourselves far from our land, no longer being able to bring bikkurim to Jerusalem and the Temple. Yet we learn something amazing in this week’s parsha, something that can help anyone who wants to avoid being infused with pride, given that it can make a person lose his portion in the world: It consists of reflecting upon the kindnesses of the Creator and His generosity towards him. When a person perceives the greatness of G-d, coupled with his own insignificance, a spirit of humility will infuse the deepest parts of his being.
What follows is an excerpt from the Ramban’s famous letter to his son: “And now, my son, understand and observe that whoever feels that he is greater than others is rebelling against the kingdom of Hashem, for he is adorning himself with His garments, as it is written: ‘Hashem has reigned, He has donned grandeur’ [Tehillim 93:1]. Why should one feel proud? Is it because of wealth? ‘Hashem impoverishes and makes rich’ [I Samuel 2:7]. Is it because of honor? This belongs to Hashem, as we read: ‘Wealth and honor come from You’ [I Chronicles 29:12]. Therefore how can a person adorn himself with Hashem’s honor? One who is proud of his wisdom surely knows that Hashem ‘removes the speech of assured men and reasoning from the elders’ [Job 12:20]! We therefore see that everyone is the same before Hashem, since He lowers the proud in His anger, and when He wishes He raises the low. Therefore lower yourself, and Hashem will lift you up!”