Parshat Ki Tavo
In this weeks parsha we read about the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Torah tells us to bring our first fruits of the season to the Beit Hamikdash, and offer it to the Kohanim. We are also told that the people would bring the fruits in baskets. The Sifri explains that there was a practice for the wealthy to bring their fruits in baskets overlaid with gold or silver, while the poor would use woven baskets. This would ostensibly show their love for the mitzvah.
However one could ask a question on this practice: We often find that the Rabbis would regulate standards in regards to mitzvah practices that could differentiate between the poor and wealthy. For example*, the Gemara in Moed Katan (27a-b) tells us that the original custom was for the wealthy to bury their dead in fancy and expensive caskets, however this caused the poor to be embarrassed, thus the Chazal enacted that everyone be buried in simple caskets. Seemingly, the minhag for the wealthy to use gold and silver laden baskets would also embarrass the poor. If so, why didn't the Chazal regulate this practice as well?
Perhaps the answer lies within the mitzvah of Bikkurim itself. The underlying message of Bikkurim is that everything we own, everything we create, is only through the benevolence and help of G-d. Bikkurim is the perfect expression of this message, as the mitzvah applies only to the first fruits.
The first fruits present a challenge to the farmer. The investment needed to create the proper environment for growth is a painstaking process. The farmer spends many days and months just preparing the land. Only after the land is properly fertilized can one plant. Then the farmer must keep guard to water the crops sufficiently; too much and they will be overwatered, too little and the crop will wither away. Specifically because of this personal investment, the mitzvah of Bikkurim forces us to confront the unavoidable truth that G-d is really the One controlling everything. The farmer is challenged to give over the produce in which he invested his very being; in doing so, he shows that although he put in the work, in reality it was G-d who enabled it to grow**. This serves for him as a testament to his beliefs.
Very often storeowners prominently display their "first dollar" on a plaque behind the counter, for to them that dollar represents all the effort, care, and worry put into that business. The dollar stops being a dollar; instead it is transformed into a symbol of that person's essence. So too, these Bikkurim are more than crops; they are his source of pride, a small part of himself. They are elevated from their physical limitations into a supernal sacrifice to G-d. For instead of keeping it for himself, he makes the ultimate personal sacrifice, showing that G-d is the true enabler.
With this approach, we can answer our question. At the moment of intense feelings of accomplishment, Bikkurim forces the farmer to confront the challenge of personal pride. In doing do, he realizes that not only does G-d enable him to create, but all that he has and receives is decreed by G-d as exactly what he needs, no more and no less. This perspective will help him reach the state of "Sameach B'chelko" – contentment with his lot. Thus, there is no need to regulate the standards of this mitzvah, as the poor man is not embarrassed of his lot, and the rich man is humbled by the blessing bestowed upon him. This is why Bikkurim is different than other mitzvot. Through the sacrifice that it demands, we come to recognize all the blessings in our lives, and to thank G-d for giving them to us.
This year, as we stand on the cusp of the Shmitta year in Israel, a mitzvah that the Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 84) tells us is meant to inculcate within us the knowledge that the land really belongs to G-d, this parsha's message should further our appreciation of His dominion of our daily lives for this year and many years to come.
*See the Gemara there for several examples of enactments based reasons of embarrassment
**According this we can understand a different question regarding the bracha we say on bread. We say "hamotzi lechem min haaretz," – "[Blessed is G-d] who brings forth bread from the land". Seemingly the bracha skips quite a few steps: there is harvesting, breaking the kernels, kneading the dough, then baking, and then finally bread. Perhaps the message of this bracha is that although man is involved in the many stages of the making of the bread, it is really HaShem who truly brings it forth to us. He alone truly makes it possible.