First Fruits and Social Responsibility

In Parashat Ki Tavo the Children of Israel are standing on the threshold of the Land of Israel, and receive laws and rules that would be applicable only when they enter Canaan. One of these rules refers to the First Fruits:

And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and dost possess it, and dwell therein; that thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which thou shalt bring in from thy land… And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression.  And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which Thou, O LORD, hast given me’ … And thou shalt rejoice in all the good which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thy house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is in the midst of thee.

The First Fruits of the land represent the connection with the earth, fertility and growth. Bringing the First Fruits to the Temple symbolizes the wider historical context of turning an uncouth rabble who wandered through the desert into a people rooted in its land, working as farmers. The First Fruits ceremony invites the individual to be mindfully aware of his/her connectedness with nature and humanity. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) suggests:

During harvest time man sees what nature gives him… at this time he pronounces the hazardous word ‘mine’… in the State of God he who says ‘mine’ must take care of the Other… Caring for the poor is a privilege God gave the poor and a duty God entrusted upon the rich (commentary on Vayikra Kedoshim, translated by Keren Fite).

The ceremony of the First Fruits (bikkurim) requires mindful daily observation of Nature:

How were the bikkurim set aside? A man goes down into his field, he sees a fig that ripened, or a cluster of grapes that ripened, or a pomegranate that ripened, he ties a reed-rope around it and says: let these be bikkurim’ (Mishna Bikkurim).

In “Putting in the Seed,” Robert Frost describes the attention and great love that is required in farming, and the great joy and pride when the farmer sees the fruits of his work:

How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.
    – Robert Frost, Putting in the Seed

Image by James Wheeler

Moses’ words to the people are aimed at bringing the Children of Israel to understand that the promise of the land does not entail privileges, but rather demand new duties: bringing the First Fruits (Bikkurim), donations, the Sabbath Year (Shmitah). All these duties entail a message of social responsibility, caring for the weak and the needy, and promoting humility.

In the moment in which the farmers bring the fruits of their hard labor, a moment of potential pride, the ceremony of First Fruits reminds us where we came from and where we are going. This moment can easily turn into a moment of self-centeredness and pride: “My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth” (Deuteronomy 8,18). The ceremony of the First Fruits reminds the individual the inter-connectedness between human beings and nature, and the interrelation between human beings through shared history and social responsibility. As a result, the individual is required to give the fruit of his/her land, to share the fruits of his/her labor.

Feature image by Pixabay

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