“The Kohen shall take the basket from your hand, and lay it before the Altar of HaShem, your God.” (Deut.26.4)
Many years ago, I used to attend concerts by the Grateful Dead. One of the iconic songs by the band was Hell In a Bucket. It was a song dripping with ire and sarcasm and seemed directed at a former love who had deeply wounded the lyricist.
“You imagine me sipping champagne from your boot
For taste of your elegant pride
I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe
But at least I’m enjoying the ride, at least I’ll enjoy the ride.”
The ultimate sentiment of the song resonates with many who feel that it’s impossible for them to do what’s right, to win, to please someone else. In our application, to please God. In other words, ‘my life is a train wreck and I’m going to be tossed out with the waste water, but at least I’ll enjoy what I can before the end’.
This idea runs literally opposite the sentiment reflected at the beginning of this week’s parsha. In our highlighted verse, we have a passage in which the farmer who has acquired the first bountiful crop of the year must bring the first fruits of this bounty before the priest (in other words to God) as an offering, and recite as he does so a mantra that recognizes and identifies him with a time in his nation’s history which is humbling, even embarrassing:
“…And you shall respond and you shall say before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deut.26:5)
The contrast is concrete. The jilted lover in the song Hell In a Bucket revels in his misfortune and makes it a sort of defiant war-cry of the heart, whereas the Jewish farmer in the parsha revels in his fortune and blessing by denigrating his own esteem and acknowledging that there is a God above him that gives him strength and the ability to create success. A famous Jewish commentator explains this:
“…There is no other passage in the Torah that better describes the character of the Jewish farmer in the land than these few verses. They are pronounced at the moment of his intense joy, a satisfaction that only the man who works in the field can experience. In contrast, the ordinary farmer would be filled with pride…at such a moment. He would remember the long and difficult struggle in producing these fruits, and he would feel that he legitimately owns them. The Jewish farmer, however, will bow his head to HaShem, and humbly say to Him that ‘our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, and He liberated them. We were then without land and happiness, but HaShem, in His mercy, gave that to us too.” (Hirsch, as related by Rabbi Elie Munk, “The Call of the Torah: Devarim”, Artscroll, pg.271)
The Rambam is more succinct in his commentary, saying that the mitzvah is designed to cause the farmer to become accustomed to acting generously, and to learn to limit his desire for property. (IBID, quoting the Rambam, pg.270)
In a Kabbalistic interpretation, this mitzvah is seen as a path to the World to Come. The basket, according to this reading, represents all the mitzvot one has performed in the world. Upon his death, he will put all his mitzvot in a basket and then, before the archangel Michael, present all his good deeds. (IBID, pg.272)
But the question should be asked; is this commandment meant to only apply when one is living in the land of Israel, and the priesthood is active (there is a Temple)? We would say, in a literal sense, yes.
One common rendering (Rabbi Yishmael) states that all the commandments in the Torah which are qualified by “when you enter” demand that Israel is sovereign; post-settlement.
So then, by this interpretation, are we to say that a Jewish farmer or businessman or even the common Jew should not remember their nation’s history when they achieve success or receive blessing? Is this commandment only utilitarian in scope?
The school of Rabbi Akiva had a different take on this. He did not view “when you enter” as referring to a specific time in the future when the people were in the land, but as a way of referring to the present, with implications for the future.
“And when”…means nothing other than immediately. “When God has brought you into the land” – fulfill the commandment mentioned herein, for on its merit you will enter the land.” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai)
This has far-reaching implications for not only the mitzvah of first-fruits, but also for Torah observance in general.
“Rabbi Akiva breathes life into commandments that are ostensibly dependent on independent life in the land, and makes them applicable even outside of it. Thus the land becomes a distant dream to which we aspire, but is not a necessary condition for the full religious observance of the mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva’s interpretation joins a long exegetical tradition which, over generations, turned “the land of Israel” into an idea, an aspiration, a goal.” (Avital Hochstein, “When You Enter the Land”, http://www.hadar.org)
The truth is that, whether one views this command (and others like it) in a strictly literal fashion, or whether one takes the more philosophical approach of Rabbi Akiva, the fact remains that there is an allegorical, and mystical application to both the concept of “being in the land” and the concept of bringing forth mitzvot to God.
Shlomo Riskin cites a comment made by Rabbi Menachem Ziemba:
“The commandment to bring the first fruits is a repair, a tikkun, for the Sin of the Scouts.” (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights: Devarim, Maggid Books, pg.273)
Ziemba sees a chiasmus between the events of the sending forth of the spies and the recitations in this mitzvot.
In this way, the first fruits offering brings healing to and restitution to the sin of the generation which perished in the wilderness. This gives credence to the rabbinic notion that Moses and the generation in the wilderness will be the first to experience the resurrection.
It appears that the apostle Paul was familiar with this midrash as he prepared his first letter to the Corinthians:
“For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and all ate the same spiritual food; and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness. Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved.” (1 Cor.10:1-6)
This is not to even mention that the “rock which followed them” is also midrashic. Paul is therefore not identifying the rock as a “christophany”, but is simply making a midrash.
So we see a connection, then, between the allegorizing of Paul and the allegorizing of Rabbi Akiva. One is looking back and the other forward, but both are applying the Torah and it’s literal commands to circumstances that are anticipated, but not yet realized.
From the perspective of the literal Torah, many commands are only performed in the land, by Jews. In the mystical sense, however, these commands represent spiritual realities that we can, in fact, grasp hold of now, through midrashic application.
In the same way, a Gentile who is not obligated to perform certain commandments, such as eating kosher or guarding the Sabbath, may actually participate in such activities as a present day application of a spiritual identification, even though halachically it is not required of them.
The statement, “…My father was a wandering Aramean…” suggests a time in the Jew’s ancestral history when they were not Jews. At some point, Abraham became the first “convert”.
A commandment like this one cannot be literally performed by either a Jew or a non-Jew today, but all people can identify with the lesson that HaShem is the One who has delivered us from bondage and a life of irrelevance and made us happy with His blessings and promises.
Promises, all promises, are anticipated presently though they are not physically manifested yet.
Torah observance and conversion are viable options for a non-Jew who apprehends this reality, just as the spiritual application of the first fruits offering is available and encouraged upon every Jew, whether or not they are farmers living in the land of Israel, and whether or not there is a Temple.
What Rabbi Akiva illuminates for us is an important aspect of Judaism. I have a good friend who is fond of repeating the statement that “Judaism is a blood line.” I only partially agree. Being Jewish becomes a bloodline, however Jewish tradition insists that “biology is not destiny” (Riskin).
Rabbi Riskin points out for us that Judaism is not rooted in belief in the Jewish people only, but in belief in all of humanity, and the possibility that people can choose to change and even choose to change their identities. Ruth is cited as a prime example. The hope of change is illustrated by him through the story of Lot and his daughters, who get him drunk so as to become impregnated by him for the purpose of carrying on the human race in the wake of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction (they could not know that it was a localized catastrophe).
He quotes the Midrash:
“(The elder sister says), Remember our tradition that the human being is created in the image of the Divine; remember God’s charge to Abraham that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him and his teaching, that eventually the entire world will accept tzedaka and mishpat, compassionate righteousness and moral justice.”
And the elder sister won the day. The progenitor of the Messiah was born from Moab; from that act of incest, because belief in the Messiah is not so much belief in God as it is belief in humanity, and in the human capacity to change! (Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Torah Lights: Devarim, Maggid, pg.241-242)
Technically, Israel cannot offer first fruits without being in the land, being in charge of the land, and without an active priesthood and functioning Temple.
Yet and still, the tradition has found a way to incorporate this commandment in a spiritual sense anyway, just as it found a way to make prayer and liturgy a representation of the Temple worship.
Technically, Gentiles don’t have Torah as an inheritance, and yet, by virtue of what Torah is, and how it is to be walked out, they actually do.
If a Gentile wishes to elevate and refine his connection to God by pursuing Torah and even converting, he follows in the path of Abraham and becomes a son of Abraham. But even if his path does not take him to that destination, he can still stand, in a spiritual sense, alongside the Jewish people, and acknowledge that God is greater than he is and that it is only God who gives the increase of his crops.
Just like the farmer in the parsha, all the world must approach God through humility and teshuvah, repentance, even if one is only repenting from pride or even from the sins of one’s forefathers.
In this way, all the world will know that “Hashem is One”.