At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read about the mitzvah of bikkurim, which began on Shavuot and continued until Sukkot. Although this time frame includes Rosh Hashana, most of us tend to associate bikkurim with Shavuot and not Rosh Hashana. At the end of the parsha we read the second set of klalot, curses.
Our Sages say that all the parshiyot in the weeks before Rosh Hashana have lessons that can be applied to the month of Elul and the approaching Day of Judgment. If that is the case, what do the bikkurim and the klalot teach us about Rosh Hashana?
The second question is easier to explain. The Sages teach us that Ezra decreed that we should read the klalot of Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashana in order that the past year and its curses should end, and a new year and its blessings should commence.
In fact, the mitzvah of bikkurim is connected to the klalot, and both are connected to Rosh Hashana.
In the tefillot from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur we add extra passages in the Amidah, beginning with “Zochreinu l’chayim,” remember us for life. Further on, we add “u’chtov l’chayim tovim,” inscribe us for a good life. First it was just life; now we are asking for a good life. Finally, at the end of the Amidah we say “B’sefer Chayim, etc.” – and here we bring a whole shopping list of requests, not just life, good life, but also blessings, peace, livelihood, good decrees, salvation etc., and the list goes on.
The question is – why this gradual buildup? Why not just come straight out at the beginning with the punch line, as we do at the end?
The Midrash brings a mashal (which I will paraphrase) of a Jew who was on a business trip in a strange city and his wallet, with all his money and passport, was stolen. A wire transfer would take a day or two to arrange at the embassy, but meanwhile, he was hungry and needed to eat. It was a Jewish neighborhood and there were kosher supermarkets and restaurants in the vicinity, but he had no way to pay for anything.
The building in which he was boarding had many Jewish families – he could see the mezuzahs on the doors. So he decided to be bold and knocked on one of them. “Excuse me, I’m sorry to trouble you, but could you perhaps spare a little salt?” he asked. The ba’al habayit immediately noticed his tzitzit hanging out, “No problem, just a second!” and brought him a disposable cup with some salt. Instead of leaving, the hungry fellow remained standing at the door. “Is everything all right?” asked the ba’al habayit. “Thank you for the salt, but do you perhaps have something I could sprinkle the salt on … like a tomato perhaps?” was the response. “No problem, just a second!” and he returned with washed tomato sliced in half. “Thank you for the tomato, but what can I do with it? Do you have something to wrap it in … like two slices of bread perhaps?” Two slices of bread appeared. “Thank you for the bread, it is really fresh! My nutritionist tells me I should always balance a carbohydrate with a protein …. You don’t perhaps have a spare slice of cheese?” A minute later, our hungry traveler left with a cheese and tomato sandwich.
If he had knocked on the door and straight away asked for a cheese and tomato sandwich (“… and don’t forget the salt!”) the most likely response would have been “What do you think this is, a restaurant?”
The mitzvah of bikkurim applies to everyone who grows produce of the Seven Species, whether you are a farmer with 1000 acres or a shoemaker with one olive tree and one fig tree in your back yard.
If you are a farmer, bikkurim makes sense – your livelihood depends on it. You load up the wagons, hang a sign on the front gate – “Back in a month” – and shlep all 10 tons of bikkurim to the Beit HaMikdash to thank Hashem for your livelihood. But if you are a shoemaker with only two trees in your yard, you mark the first two fruit on each tree with a “gemi” some kind of band, and then you make the one-month Sefad/Jerusalem return trip, just for two measly olives and two measly figs? For one entire month you will lose your income from making shoes, just for two olives and two figs?
Ou Sages say that although this was often the scenario, everyone willingly and eagerly went to the Beit Hamikdash, even for two olives and two figs, because when they brought the bikkurim, they could ask Hashem for whatever they wanted and it would be granted. Just before they left, a bat kol, a Heavenly voice, said farewell to them: “Kein tizke leshana haba’ah! – See you again next year.”
Bikkurim was all about giving thanks. If you straightaway come with a “shopping list” of demands, your reception would not be a warm one. However, if it is done with respect and combined with gratitude, like our cheese sandwich neighbor, you are more likely to get what you want.
The klalot at the end of the parsha come about only because Am Yisrael do not serve Hashem with simcha and gratitude (Devarim 28:47). As long as they have gratitude and joy in their service of Hashem, all they will get are blessings!
We have the chutzpah to come to Hashem with more demands, a good life, an entire shopping list in “Besefer chayim” because we have already said “Modim.” We have already expressed gratitude. Once you express gratitude, once you have made the effort to bring two measly figs and shut down your shoe shop for a month, then you have the right to ask Hashem for whatever your heart desires.
As we approach Rosh Hashana, let us all make more of an effort to express our gratitude and simcha – getting up early for selichot, eagerly undertaking extra resolutions for the new year and so forth. Let us sincerely thank Hashem for everything He has given us … then we can present our shopping list on Rosh Hashana with confidence that our prayers will be answered.
Parshat HaShavua Trivia Question: What was the purpose of the whitewashed stones containing the Torah on Har Eival when Am Yisrael entered the Land?
Answer to Last Week’s Trivia Question: Was there ever in history a case of an actual “ben sorer umoreh?” According to the Tosefta (Sanhedrin 11:2), there never was a case of “ben sorer umoreh” and there never will be, and the sole purpose of its appearance in the Torah is that we may learn it and get the reward for learning it.