Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
A Lesson in Restraint
This week's Torah reading, Ki Savo, begins with the mitzvah of Bikkurim,
the commandment to bring the first fruits of the field to the Beis
HaMikdash, the Holy Temple. "And it will be, when you enter the land that
Hashem your G-d gives you as an inheritance... and you shall take the first
of every fruit of the ground... and you shall put it in a basket, and go to
the place that Hashem your G-d will choose to make His name rest there.
(26:1-2)" The first fruits are brought from the seven species for which
Eretz Yisrael is famed: Wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives,
When a land-owner notices that the first fruit of any of the afformentioned
kind begin to ripen in his field or orchard, he ties a thread around it to
mark it as Bikkurim. He then waits until the various kinds of fruits have
fully ripened, to take them together to the Beis HaMikdash.
The Rambam in Moreh Nevochim (Guide to the Perplexed) explains that
one of the benefits of Bikkurim is to strengthen our self-control. It is
tempting for the farmer, having toiled for many months, to finally partake
in the first ripe fruits of his crop. Instead, the Torah obligates him to
refrain, and reserve it for Hashem.
Normally, we think of the concept of "refraining from that which is
permissable" as something reserved for only the most holy and pious
individuals. "Kedushah" - the term used by the Torah to describe
abstinence and restraint from indulgence - is not often though of as a goal
toward which every Jew should strive.
The Torah, however, disagrees. The mitzvah of "Kedoshim tihyu - you
shall be holy, (Vayikra 19:2)" applies to every Jew, from Sage to
simpleton. Ramban (ibid.) explains that this mitzvah requires, "Lekadeish
atzmecha be-mutar lach - that we sanctify ourselves [by refraining from
even] that which is permissable."
In explanation of the Ben Sorer u-Moreh (the Wayward Son, who is killed
for having seemingly done very little), Ramban explains that he is put to
death not for what he has done, but because he has demonstrated a total
inability to separate himself from his desires. His actions have begun to
take the fatal but inevitable step, crossing over the delicate line between
that which is permissable and that which is forbidden. One who submits
completely to his desires, who fails to adhere to the Torah's standard of
"Kedoshim tihyu," will eventually stray further than we could ever imagine.
Having arrived with his fruits, the bringer of Bikkurim then recites what is
known as Mikra Bikkurim - The Bikkurim Speech. (26:5) "My father
[Yaakov] descended to Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number. And
there he became a nation, great, strong, and numerous." What is the
connection between the Jewish nation's sojourn in Egypt, and the mitzvah
Regarding the Egyptian exile, we find seemingly contradictory statements
in the words of our Sages. On the one hand, we are told that the Jews
"insulated themselves" from engaging in immoral relationships with the
Egyptians. We also find that (Shemos Rabbah 1:1), "they were redeemed
(from Egypt) because they did not change their names, their language,
and their dress." Seemingly, the Jews of Egypt lived as "full fledged
Yidden!" - they spoke Jewish, dressed Jewish, and married only nice
Jewish boys and girls.
On the other hand, we are taught that when the Jews were taken out of
Mitzrayim, they had already descended to the "forty-ninth" of the fifty
"gates of spiritual contamination." Had they remained any longer, they
would have descended to the "fiftieth gate," from where their removal
would have proved impossible (this is one of the reasons that Hashem
took them out before the appointed time).
How can these seemingly contradictory statements be true - That they
were both thoroughly "Jewish" and separated from the Egyptians, yet they
had become contaminated by the deepest depths of impurity?
Perhaps, however, the answer lies in the concept of "Kadeish atzmecha
be-mutar lach - Sanctify yourself with that which is permissable." The Jews
had descended to such a deep level of tum'ah by constantly indulging
themselves with whatever their hearts desired - provided it was within the
realms of (what then constituted) halachah. They were so steeped in
material pleasure, and charmed by the allure of Egyptian culture, that even
though externally they took on the appearance of "heimishe" Jews,
internally their souls were almost completely cut off from Hashem.
(Nesivos Shalom, Ki Setze p. 137) Indeed, from such impurity it is
extremely difficult to escape - for since all one's actions are halachically
acceptable, one finds no inherent wrong in what he's doing.
Perhaps this is why the bringer of Bikkurim invokes the Egyptian exile, as
if to say: I have not made the mistake of my forefathers in Egypt - I have
exercised self-control and refrained from indulging in the first of my
I control my desires - my desires don't control me.
When Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur arrive, we will focus on repenting
for our sins and wrongdoings. Beforehand, during the month of Elul, it is
imperative that we examine not only our sins, but even the "grey-area" of
permissibility. Do we exercise restraint and self-control even within the
realm of heter (permissable), or are we controlled by our desires? Are our
minds attuned to the level of kedushah to which the Torah wants every
Jew to strive, or have our senses become dulled by the constant and
incessant pursuit of material bliss and sensory satisfaction? Only by using
Elul to re-energize our spirituality through the mitzvah of "Kedoshim
tihyu" and "kadeish atzmecha be-mutar lach" will we be able to properly
repent and reconnect during the approaching Days of Awe and
Text Copyright © 1999 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.