One of the mitzvot that is described in this week's Torah reading is that
of bikurim - the offering of the first-harvested fruit on the premises of
the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jewish farmer, after surviving the arduous
task of planting and harvesting his precious and hard-won crops, brings the
fruit of his labors to the kohen in the great and holy Temple in Jerusalem.
There, upon handing over his basket of bikurim to the kohen and the altar,
the Jewish farmer recites a prayer of thanksgiving and hope. But the
language of that prayer, at first glance, appears to be out of place with
the ceremony of bikurim that it is meant to commemorate. Instead of the
expected and logical thanks for the rain, the sunlight and the bounty of
the fertile earth, the prayer is a short review of ancient Jewish history.
Instead, it tells of the travails of our founding forefathers, the descent
of the tribes of Israel into Egyptian bondage, their eventual redemption
from that bondage and their entry into the Holy Land, and the struggle of
Israel to establish itself in its promised land. And then the prayer almost
abruptly switches to the acknowledgment of God's bounty in helping the
farmer bring this first-harvested fruit offering to the Temple. What is the
import of this construction of the prayer? Why the history lesson? What are
we to make of this recitation of the prayer of bikurim?
People are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. After all, one's
efforts and talents, time and struggle, are of no minor consequence in
one's life. Many times, we feel that this is perhaps all we have to show
for our years on earth. Therefore, there is a human tendency to view one's
achievements in a somewhat exaggerated fashion, without being able to place
the true accomplishment in realistic perspective. In life, individual or
communal, nothing takes place in a vacuum. There is always a past to our
efforts and struggles, as we hope there will be a future to them as well.
If we do not somehow see ourselves in the light of that past, we really
cannot be aware of the true nature of our accomplishment in the present.
The disregard of the past is a common illness in twentieth century life.
Much of secular society and secular Jewry blithely ignores the lessons of
our past and of general history at large. Same-sex marriages, blind pagan
worship of environment and nature, widespread use of addictive drugs, a
disproportionate emphasis in life on sports and unwarranted adulation of
athletes and the strong, feel-good and undemanding moral standards, all
were staple components of the downfall of society in the Classical Era of
Greece and Rome. But our world blithely ignores all of the lessons of the
past. We see our society as being new and progressive, existing in a
vacuum, cleverer by far than all generations that preceded us. That is the
false reality that the Torah warns about in this prayer of the bikurim
service. Therefore, before the Jewish farmer, proud of his achievements and
confident of his future and success, proclaimed his personal victory in the
holy Temple of God, he first had to recite and remember a basic lesson of
Jewish history. He had to admit that life and society did not begin with
him, that his "first harvest" - bikurim - was preceded by many other such
"first harvests." This sobering assessment of life is realism -
uncomfortable, disturbing, thought provoking, challenging and valuable. The
Torah prescribes this realism as the gateway to wisdom.
We should all treasure our accomplishments in life. We should love and
value our children and family. We can be proud of our companies, awards,
enterprises and commercial successes. But we should be wise and cautious
and remember our past in assessing our present. The necessity to avoid
hubris and be realistic about our achievements is the key to true human
success. That may be accomplished by studied knowledge and appreciation of
our historic past.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Berel Wein and
Project Genesis, Inc.