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Bikkurim, Best Efforts, and Bringing Back Shemita

08/27/2021 03:25:28 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Tavo, in which rules regarding the sacrifice of the first fruits are given, along with rules regarding tithes and Moses’s theatrical blessings and curses on Mount G’rizim and Mount Eival. Of the first fruits offerings, Rashi states: “Not all fruits are subject to the mitzvah of bikkurim (first fruits)—only those from the seven species [for which the Land of Israel is praised]. Here, in our verse, it says the word eretz (“land”), and there (in Deuteronomy 8:8) it says, “A land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and honey[-producing dates].” Just as the earlier verse is referring to the seven species through which Eretz Yisrael is praised, here too, the fruits of which the verse speaks are those with which the Land is praised.”

          However, Maimonides and the Lubavitcher Rebbe agree that the concept of the “First Fruits” and similar offerings of “the choicest to G-d” should apply in all areas of life. Maimonides writes, “When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his own dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed him of the best and sweetest of his table. When one clothes the naked, he should clothe him with the finest of his clothes. Whenever one designates something for a holy purpose, he should sanctify the finest of his possessions.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe adds, “The rule ‘the choicest to G‑d,’ applies in all areas of life. If the school day must include both sacred and secular studies, the former should be scheduled for the morning hours, when the mind is at its freshest and most receptive. If one’s talents are to be divided between two occupations, one whose primary function is to pay the bills and a second which benefits his fellow man, he should devote his keenest abilities to the latter. In devoting the ‘first-ripened fruits’ of his life to G‑d, a person in effect is saying: ‘Here lies the focus of my existence. Quantitatively, this may represent but a small part of what I am and have; but the purpose of everything else I do and possess is to enable this percentile of spirit to rise above my matter-clogged life.’”

          I think this is generally how many of us today understand the concepts of sacrifices in general. We obviously are not offering physical items to God at all anymore – no animals, no meal, and no first fruits inside or outside of Israel. Largely, this is because of the destruction of the Temple and the sacrificial cult along with it, but also because Judaism as a whole has continued to grow and evolve in the last 2000 years, for those both in diaspora and those who managed to stay in the Holy Land throughout the years of exile.

          It strikes me, though, that sometimes we reinterpret impossibilities from the scripture to take on new metaphorical meanings that speak to us deeply in our current lives – like giving the best of ourselves to our spiritual and moral endeavors – while other elements may be left out entirely. According to current Jewish scholars and calendarists, our upcoming years of 5782 will be a Shmita year. “Shmita” refers to the body of agricultural laws that require the land lay fallow every seven years, a rest for our farmlands and beasts of burden. So far, Shmita has been understood pretty universally as something that only applies in the land of Israel. It was re-established as an agricultural practice in the 7th year of the modern state of Israel, and has in recent years begun to be seen as a time to connect with environmental concerns, but for nearly 2000 years it was almost completely ignored and forgotten about as a real practice.

Many modern rabbis, including myself, have written and spoken about the beautiful meaning behind Shmita, the necessity for land to rest and for crop rotation for soil regeneration, and the amazingly progressive sentiments behind the Jubilee year – after 7 shmitot, all debts are forgiven, slaves go free, and land returns to its original owners (that is, the living descendants of the tribe assigned to those lands by HaShem in the Torah). But it’s all been in the hypothetical or the metaphorical. It’s all been about the lessons to be gleaned from this ancient-no-longer-doable practice. And yet, it seems that if the concept of first fruits can be widely expanded beyond just the seven species of Israel, then Shmita can be further developed.

I don’t necessarily have a clear idea of what that should or could look like. As I’ve said in the past, I am deeply concerned with the agricultural monoculture in this country and could imagine that a year of making the land lay fallow could help with some of the big industrial agro greed. But I recognize that that’s not truly feasible. Still, I can only hope and advocate that someone with more knowledge of environmental impacts and policy-making skills could institute something like Shmita outside the land of Israel, something that we could all benefit from.

In the meantime, that effort is not quite my first fruit, my best skills and use of resources. So, I continue to focus on my own options for better natural eating and recycling, maintaining the larger morals around Shmita. I saw in a rabbinical Facebook group today a suggestion as well that we take Shmita as a time to “rest” from other resource-draining practices, like ordering from Amazon, and redistributing our resources instead to those who in ancient days may have needed the offerings of the free fields.  

And in the meantime, I hope you consider where your best efforts and first fruits can be put to use, too. You can start by joining our Reverse Tashlich on September 12th, where we will be joining a nationwide effort to clean up water fronts by picking up litter in the park around Bull Run Marina, where we do our traditional Tashlich each year as well.  

          May we each give of our best selves, and may we each be blessed in return by the strengthened communities we build when we do so. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782