How to Take Your Place In Jewish History
Bikkurim: The Historical Significance Of The First Fruits Offering
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Parshat Ki Tavo introduces to the topic of bikkurim, the first fruits brought to the temple. In this video, Rabbi Fohrman brings up some oddities in the text and asks why the Torah would paint such a confusing picture, and what are these mysterious silences? Watch the next video to find out!
Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Parshat Ki Tavo. You are watching Aleph Beta.
Today I want to talk with you about two curiosities at the beginning of this week's parsha.
Bikkurim: Understanding the Meaning of the First Fruit Offering
In the story having to do with the law of bikkurim, the first fruits, the Torah declares that once a year farmers should ascend to the temple with a basket of their first fruits and it gives a procedure for what is to happen next. The procedure at face value is very straightforward; when you look at it a little bit more carefully, it becomes rather mystifying.
Let me show you what I mean.
So here is the farmer, he shows up at the temple, u'bata el-hakohen asher yihyeh bayamim hahem, he comes to the priest that's there. V'amarta elav, and he says to him, higadti hayom laHashem Elokeicha, 'I have declared today, before God, your God', ki-vati el-haaretz asher nisba Hashem La'avoteinu latet lanu, 'that I have indeed come to the land that God has sworn to give to my forefathers.'
Well, sounds pretty straightforward – until you begin to take a closer look at the grammar. Higadti hayom laHashem Elokeicha, he says, 'I have declared today, before God.' What's that supposed to mean? He didn't already declare that, I mean he is standing there and now he is talking, he is making a declaration but doesn't say 'I am declaring, I hereby declare.' 'I have already declared,' but he didn't declare anything, he didn't say anything, how could he have declared this already? That's disconnect number one.
Here is disconnect number two, look what happens next. V'lakach hakohen hatene miyadecha, the kohen takes the basket from his hands and places it before the alter of God. V'anita v'amarta, that farmer should then answer and should say before God, the following: arami oved avi, 'My father was wondering Aramean', vayired Mitzrayimah, 'he eventually wandered and came down to Egypt', vayadar sham, 'he sojourned there for a while and became a great nation in Egypt,' vayareu otanu haMitzrim, 'the Egyptians mistreated us and they oppressed us and God heard our voice when we cried out to him and then he took us from the land.'
And the farmer goes and continues and gives this really mini summary of Jewish history; and the disconnect here I think comes from one word, this introductory word, v'anita v'amarta, 'and he shall answer and say.' What do you mean answer, did anyone ask him a question? I mean he was the last one talking, it's really just a continuation of his first declaration, 'I have declared to you today that I have come before you…to this land' I mean if so, he is continuing talking, why do we call this an answer? He is not answering anything, no one talked to him.
It seems to me, that the Torah is intentionally setting up the soliloquy of the farmer as something other than a soliloquy, a kind of dialogue. There are breaks in this dialogue which are silences but they are not really silences at all. Something is happening in that silence.
Let's try to figure out what it is.
A Closer Study: What Does the Bible Say About the First Fruit Offering?
The first silence, the farmer takes his basket, he comes to the temple, he gives it to the kohen, v’amarta elav, and he says, higadti hayom laHashem Elokeicha, ‘I have declared before God that I have come to the land that God has sworn to my forefathers.’ What that seems to mean is that even before he has opened up his mouth, just the simple fact of his presence is a kind of declaration. The only thing that happened before he started talking was he was standing there.
It must be that, that ‘standing there’ says something, it says what he then gives voice to through words just a moment later that ‘I have come to the land’. The greatest testimony is that he has come to the land is just the fact that he is standing there, even before he opens his mouth.
What does it say? Look at exactly what it is that the farmer says when holding it. He doesn’t just say that ‘I have declared that I have come to the land’, which land? Asher nishba Hashem La’avoteinu latet lanu. ‘The land that the God swore to my forefathers;’ why is he saying that? The fact that God has sworn the land to his forefather seems to be the issue that the farmer is addressing.
What he seems to be saying is that God is the Promise Keeper, the One who has kept His oath to my forefathers, I am here to tell those forefathers wherever they are in heaven now, that God did keep His oath and if you look a little bit back in the history, you can have a sense of why that something had must be said.
You can almost imagine Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all of their descendants sitting there in heaven with the Lord of Hosts, saying over the edges, ‘well, when will it finally happen?’ That promise that Abraham’s progeny was going to get the land, was made so many centuries before it happened. It was a promise that would have frustrated Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all of their descendants.
You're Abraham, God comes and tells you, it is going to be great, you are going to have land, you are going to have children. You think it is going to happen and it doesn’t happen. By the end of your life, the only land that you have is the burial plot that you have bought for Sarah and for even that you had to haggle with Evan for it.
You are Isaac, you think it falls to you to actualize Abraham’s promise, you are going to be the one who is finally going to be able to take possession of this land. Here you are, you are spending your life digging wells and then the Philistines comes and they stop up the wells and at the end of your life, you have actually lost yardage, you have nothing to show for it in terms of actual kinyan, possession of the land.
And what about children? All you have is two kids and now, in the next generation, you are Yaakov, it falls to you to actualize the promise and you think it is finally going to happen but at the moment that you get the mandate to carry on the great legacy of Abraham, you find yourself on the run, escaping from the land of Israel to escape the wrath of the brother you tricked. And suddenly you are in exile and you are not in the land and at that moment that you are leaving the land, you have this dream and God comes to you and says, ‘Don’t worry. I am going to bring you back, you are going to have lots of children. Your children are going to be like the dusts of the earth and you will have the land, as far as you can see.’ And you say to yourself, ‘Yes, I am going to be the one, finally it is going to be me.’
And decades later, you do come back to the land and you have all these children and you think it's you. And vayeshav Yaakov be’eretz meguray aviv, you hear the exhilaration of the text. Yaakov finally settles down. Where does he settle? He settles in the land that his fathers until then just been gerim, they have just been sojourners. ‘I am finally going to settle down to actualize the promise that they failed to actualize,' only to see that slipped to his grasp.
When Joseph is taken down to Egypt and sooner than later, he and his entire family follow; and on the way to Egypt God comes to him in a bone chilling prophecy and says ‘don’t worry about going to Egypt, I am going to make you into a great nation there’. Sounds so wonderful until you remember the promise – land and nationhood – and God is saying that I am splitting up the promise. You are going to be a nation, great people but not happening in Israel, it is happening in Egypt where you and your entire family are going to be on exile for a long, long time.
When Genesis ends, the promise is unfulfilled; when the five books of Moses end, the promise is unfulfilled. It takes centuries for the promise to be fulfilled, until we meet this little farmer.
Explaining the Meaning of Giving Your First Fruit Offering to God
The little farmer feels like nothing; Jewish history is about Abraham, it is about Isaac, about Jacob, about Jews and Egypt. It is not about me, I am just a little old farmer somewhere west of Nariya; but it is about you, you are the end and the end makes all the difference.
Higadati hayom, ‘I say, I declare, my very presence, my being here in the land with this basket testifies to the forefathers up in heaven with you God, that you are a Promise Keeper, you didn’t say this in vain, it is true. I am here and my basket of fruits proves it to be true.’ And now, he lays down that basket and then, he answers the question.
What question is the answer of? No question was asked – except maybe a question was asked in the silence. He laid down the basket before the altar, he put it before God. That basket sitting there on the ground in that silence, a question has been asked to the farmer by God. The question is, ‘you claim that your presence is a statement, do you understand that statement? Do you understand the larger context for your existence here? Show me that you understand.’
V’anita v’amarta, and then you answer and you go throughout Jewish history, starting from the very beginning, and you show that you understand that this long deferred promise is twisted and turned through the ages and that you are the combination of that promise.
And when you are done with that, you are done with your declaration and then, you can finally rejoice with these first fruits knowing what their significance truly is.