“First Fruits”

This morning we are within the seven shabbatot that precede the holiest of days in our calendar, Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. Jews worldwide, like us, will be studying some of the last chapters of the Torah. Our parsha this week, “Ki Tavo,” literally means “when you enter” and in this section, Moses lays down the most important rules for the Israelites as they settle a new land.  He states:

When you enter the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Adonai your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where Adonai your God will choose to establish His name.

Here, Moses is speaking about the rite of Bikkurim, the first fruits, which is the giving of the best of your crops as an offering to God.  Bikkurim establishes a long tradition that eventually evolves into the priestly ritual at the Great Temple in Jerusalem, where the Coheins would collect the baskets of sacrificial offerings to Adonai.

The rite of Bikkurim is discussed in great detail within rabbinic texts such as the Mishnah. The rabbis ask important clarifying questions of one another: What trees? What fruits? When? How? Both the history within the cultic life of the Great Temple, as well as the rabbi’s concern over how the rite is to be enacted properly, speaks to the reverence Jews of all time have felt for Bikkurim’s most important lesson: that nothing on this Earth truly belongs to us; it belongs to God. For this reason, the rabbis argue that our best must go to God, the One who helped us create it.

But in discussing Bikkurim today, we face the same problem the ancient Rabbis faced after the destruction of the Temple.  Without the priestly class, without a giant temple, how are we to fulfill the important ritual of bikkurim, the bringing of our first fruits?

Avot de Rabbi Natan, an 8th century text, tells a story: Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua were on their way out of Jerusalem. Seeing the destroyed temple, Rabbi Yehoshua exclaimed, “how awful for us-the place where the sins of Israel could be forgiven lies in ruins.” Rabbi Yochana Replied, “My son, do not grieve.  We have another, equally effective form of atonement. What is it?  Acts of Kindness, for it is written: ‘I desire kindness not sacrifice’.

“I desire kindness, not sacrifice.” As it turns out, the rabbis argue, we need not give our first fruits in physical form.  We can, instead, commit to acts of kindness.  At first, it may seem like we’re getting off easy: no more bringing our best fruits! All we have to do is be kind!  And yet, in this day and age, we have learned just how complicated and difficult this ritual can be.  We are a world connected to so many and to so much information through the use of technology. This technology can make the world’s problems seem so overwhelming. It can drain us of our energy to do our part before we even begin. We can be left wondering, how can I commit to acts of kindness, and where do I even start?

We can start by thinking of Bikkurim as one aspect of Tzedakah.  By committing to Bikkurim, we give to follow the mitzvot, the commandments in the Torah, including the ones in this parsha, verse 12 of chapter 26: When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield — in the third year, the year of the tithe — and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements.  

Moses’ words command the Israelites to remember that God is not the only one to whom we are required to give.  The stranger, the fatherless, and the widow should be able to eat their fill.

This aspect of Bikkurim is just as relevant today as it was then.  As Jews, we have the obligation to help not only those in our community, but the stranger, including those who are not Jewish.  We have obligations to show kindness to our neighbors of all faiths and all backgrounds, those who are in need no matter where they come from.  While the parsha speaks of tithes in the form of material items, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshua taught us that tithes could take other forms that are not necessarily financial. We can give kindness to those in need: through speech, through understanding, and through action.

We’re living in some very difficult times, aren’t we?  Antisemitism is rearing its ugly head in America, a flood of biblical proportions has hit Texas and Louisiana, and hurricane Irma, whose size has not been matched in a century, ripped through Barbuda, St. Martin, and the US Virgin Islands, leaving destruction in its wake. At present, more than 3.5 million people have been told to evacuate their homes in Florida is Irma prepares to make landfall there. And I list here only the latest crises in our own country. It is, indeed, overwhelming.  There is just so much to do.

So where can we start?  Well, you’ve already seen where we can start.  In response to the rise of the alt-right in our country, the Interfaith Council of Greater Lafayette is beginning a panel-discussion series involving faith leaders from various religions to help educate our community about our commonalities, rather than focusing on our differences.  And wouldn’t you know it?  The first panel discussion is going to happen right here in this sanctuary in just a few short months.

In response to Hurricane Harvey, Temple Israel has joined the MOMs club and Montessori of Greater Lafayette helped collect and send over 3000 diapers to Texas and, in response to Carol Bloom’s request in the newsletter for gift cards, we know that our sister synagogues in Texas and Louisiana are better able to help their congregants in need.

As for Hurricane Irma, it is too soon to know just how to act. I know that in St. Thomas, which my family only recently left, there is no power, no running water, and few ways to get help to those in need. At the Red Cross and FEMA begin to establish means of communication, we will learn how best to help the affected islands in the Caribbean. And, when Irma makes landfall in Florida, I know we will stand ready to help in whatever ways we can.

Why?  Because we are commanded to follow the rite of Bikkurim, our first fruits.  Maybe we can’t go out to dinner this month because we gave donations to the Texas synagogues. Maybe we went out to dinner because instead of cooking, we made phone calls to friends and loved ones to express our support. To remind them that we care. Or maybe we had our new neighbors over for dinner, because we had never really had a conversation with them before, but now was as good a time as any to get to know them.

Each of these actions–the giving of our time, our compassion, our kindness–is the sending of our first fruits. When we reach out to others, regardless of who they are, what religion they are, or how far they live from this congregation, we heed Moses’ call.  They are the strangers, they are the fatherless, they are the widows that Moses speaks about in our parsha this week. Indeed, our parsha reminds us that we are unified together not just because we are a congregation, and not just because we are Jewish. We are unified because the Earth does not belong to any of us, and we all stand before God as equals, equal in our humanity and equal in our duty to preserve justice in this world.

My message this morning is hardly new but I don’t want this to simply be another cliché message about healing the world.  Instead, I want to challenge all of us to truly take action. In my home, in an attempt to highlight that mitzvah’s like Bikkurim extend beyond financial contributions (though these are certainly important), we have a tradition. At the end of each week, we write down on slips of paper what acts we have witnessed or engaged in to make the world a better, or more just, place. What acts of compassion or kindness have moved us, or have we moved to make? Then, over Shabbat dinner, we discuss these actions and what we hope the impact of these actions will be.  It is a tradition that we hope will continue as Asher gets older, when he can write on his own slips of paper. And it is a tradition that share with friends as they join us for Shabbat dinners.

I invite you all to begin a similar tradition in your homes. Shabbat is, after all, a day of rest, a day when we gain an extra soul and find inner peace.  What better time is there to discuss all the work we’ve done or witnessed the past week to bring justice to this world?  And, since so many of us are familiar with the word tzedakah, our word for justice, I would invite you to introduce a new vocabulary word at your Shabbat tables:  Bikkurim, the first fruits of our harvest, whatever they may be. Let these acts of kindness be the gift we give to God, to our world, and to one another each week.

Shabbbat Shalom.




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