Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Deuteronomy, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books
At the beginning of today’s sidra we read of two institutions which were legislated for our ancestors by Moses. The first is the bikurim, the commandment to bring the first fruit to the kohen (priest). The second is the ma’asrot, the various tithes which were obligatory for the Jew – a tenth of one’s income to the Levite every year and, on alternate years, additional contributions to the poor and underprivileged, and the bringing of one’s fruit to Jerusalem and eating them there joyously. There are a number of similarities between bikurim and ma’aser. For one thing, both are compulsory contributions. Further, each of them is accompanied by a set recitation. And finally, both of them became effective only upon the entrance of the People of Israel to the Holy Land.
But even more significant than the similarities are the differences between these two great institutions. In introducing the recitation that is to accompany the giving of the tithes, the Torah merely says, “And you shall say” (Deuteronomy 26:13). Before the recitation for the first fruits, however, the Torah prefaces the words, “And you shall call out (ve’anita) and say” (26:5). That extra word “ve’anita,” “and you shall call out,” was interpreted variously by our Rabbis (Sota 32b). Thus, they said that the first fruits are to be brought and the recitation is to be read in a loud voice, whereas the recitation for the tithes is to be pronounced in a whisper.
Furthermore, the recitation for the first fruits must be in Hebrew, whereas the recitation for the tithes may be read in any language. A third difference involves the terminology used: the bikurim recitation is called “mikra,” a reading or proclamation; whereas the ma’asrot reading is called “viduy,” which means a “confession.” And then there is also a historical difference between the two. The first fruits were offered in the Holy Land as long as the Temple was in existence. The reading for the tithes, however, was interrupted in the middle of the Second Commonwealth by Yohanan the High Priest (see the last mishna in Ma’asrot).
Why this apparent discrimination favoring bikurim over ma’asrot? Why did both Halakha and history give preference to the institution of first fruits over tithes? We will discuss three answers.
The first relates to the difference in mood and temperament between these two mitzvot. When a man brought his bikurim, he spoke of his and his people’s low origins. He said, “Arami oved avi,” a wandering, or perplexed, Aramean was my forefather Jacob. In contrast to the origin traditions of Israel’s neighbors, there is no myth here of people being descended from a sun-god! Our ancestors were not great conquerors; instead, we were slaves who were persecuted and driven from one indignity to another. It is only because of God’s intervention that we were saved – it was God who took us out of Egypt. It was only because of Him that we came to this marvelous inheritance of the Land of Israel: “And He gave us this land” (v. 9). Without the Almighty we would have remained a slave people, crushed in between the millstones of degenerate Egyptian civilization, so that by this day nothing would have been left of us. All of the mikra bikurim, is, therefore, an expression of thankfulness and gratitude based upon the acknowledgement of our own helplessness without God.
The ma’asrot recitation is in a completely different category. One can easily misunderstand this string of verses as reflecting a sense of complacency and smugness. The donor recites the words, “I have paid all my debts to the Sanctuary. I have also given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the orphan and the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me.” I have taken care of my obligations; I have done nothing wrong. I am a pious man and I am a good Jew. This was a speech that accompanied the bringing of the ma’aser. An innocent bystander might have expected that, at this point, the worshipper would remain silent, waiting for a divine pat on the back!
Now, whereas the facts mentioned in this recitation may be true and accurate, it is certainly unbecoming to pronounce them aloud. The facts may be correct, but the publicity given to them is by no means right. The feeling that one has given enough, done enough, observed enough, should remain just that – a feeling, nothing more. Because if it is not kept to a whisper, but is proclaimed in a loud voice, then devoutness degenerates into superciliousness, righteousness into self-righteousness, and piety into pomposity. The mark of the Jew, however, is that he is a bayshan, a shame-faced person; we are a unique people whose high morality has often been mistaken for masochism. We have traditionally underplayed our achievements, while publicly acknowledging our guilt and our faults. Our prayers speak of how “because of our sins, we were exiled from our land.” We accept the blame upon ourselves for our exile; it was caused by our moral failures. And our Scriptures are largely the record of our failures and insufficiencies. What a contrast to the atmosphere of political conventions, to which we have been subjected these past weeks, in which orator after orator points with pride to the virtues of his own party exclusively and views with alarm the faults of his opponents!
Perhaps it is time that we Jews in the contemporary era were now mature and bright enough to apply the lessons of the recitation of bikurim to the State of Israel in the kind of image we are trying to present to the world. We may be justifiably proud of Israel’s achievements in science and in industry, in security and housing and economics. But instead of publishing this record in a loud voice – overexposing it so that non-Jews will say: “Yes, Israel is that country of those inventive and ambitious Jews” – the weight and burden of our image ought to be the presentation of Israel as the land of the Bible, where an ancient divine promise to our forefathers was redeemed in our day. For this is the theme of the bikurim. A holy people never blows its own horn. Indeed, the only time it does so is at the teki’at shofar during the period leading up to Rosh HaShana – and the sounding of the shofar then reminds us of our errors, not our greatness.
A second answer as to the difference between the first fruits and the tithes concerns the nature of our religious orientation. The man who brought bikurim expected nothing in return for his pious gesture. On the contrary, in offering gratitude, he implied that what he had received heretofore was undeserved. Therefore he offered his thanks and expected nothing more – although he might have hoped for it with all his heart.
Contrariwise, the giving of the ma’asrot was concluded by a short prayer, beginning with the words, “Look forth from Your holy habitation, from Heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the land which You has given us” (v. 15). How easy to misinterpret this beautiful passage as, “I have done my duty toward You, O Lord; now it is up to You to reciprocate and do Your duty towards me! I have fulfilled my obligations; now, O God, pay me back.” This is the kind of feeling that informs a person who, in conditions of distress and adversity, will complain that he is deserving of much better from God, and when he revels in prosperity and plenty, never entertains the thought that maybe he is undeserving of all this bliss and blessing. Now, it may be just that he is deserving – who are we to judge our fellow human being? But while it may be just, it certainly is not authentic piety. A mature religious person does not exact payment from God, just as a mature married couple does not base its life upon an exchange of duties legally exacted and juridically delimited. There is a danger that this concluding prayer of the recitation of the ma’aser can be misunderstood by the donor as a kind of quid pro quo, an attempt to strike a bargain with God and demand immediate payment. Compared with the mikra bikurim, the viduy ma’aser can be characterized as a kind of crass commercialism, a deal with the Deity. When a man speaks thus, and intends this, it is indeed a viduy, a “confession” that he does not understand the Torah and that he does not understand man’s destiny in the face of God.
Whereas the recitation for bikurim is called a mikra, a proclamation of maturity, because man knows his shortcomings and appreciates that he deserves nothing, the reading for ma’asrot is viduy, a confession of misunderstand and failure. That is why the bikurim was recited only in Hebrew, leshon hakodesh (the holy language); for the entire concept which one enunciated bespeaks a holy wisdom – whereas the business-like attitude towards God reflected in the viduy ma’aser is recited in any language, for it reflects the vulgar jargon of the market-place.
And there is a third and final difference between these two institutions – the difference in timing. The reading for the tithes was done at the end of the third year of the triennial cycle, after all else had been done. As Deuteronomy 26:12 says, “When you finish giving your tithes, then you must recite the following…” The ma’aser itself was offered towards the end of the season; only after all else had been done, then one would give God and His charges their contributions. Now, tithes are certainly generous – they involve over 10 percent of a man’s earning – and far better than nothing. But how much greater and more generous of the spirit is the giving of the bikurim. For even if a man could afford no more than a kol shehu, even a pittance, still he gave it joyously and enthusiastically – the very first fruits, the symbol of a person’s achievement, one’s triumph, and one’s success were devoted to God, thereby indicating the sense of gladness and joy in which he gave to his Lord.
These, then, are the three reasons why the bikurim were more cherished and emphasized. And all these three are present and stressed in the Selihot prayer which we shall recite tonight. They are, for one, thing, the very opposite of self-righteousness. For we shall say at the very beginning of our Selihot service, “lekha Hashem hatzedaka, velanu boshet hapanim,” “You, O Lord, are just, whereas we are ashamed of ourselves.” Second, we will acknowledge that we do not deserve any special favors: “lo behesed velo bema’asim banu lefanekha,” “We do not come before You boasting of great deeds or great acts of love on our part.” And, instead of a business-like trade, we announce “ki al rahamekha harabim anu betuhim,” that we can rely not upon our deeds, but only upon Your great mercies. And finally, as Rabbi Yitzhak Arama tells us, the Selihot too are offered at the beginning – at the beginning of the season when the nights grow longer, so that, as he puts it, “It is pleasant for man to serve God at the beginning of this time of the lengthening nights, devoting them to prayer and supplication, so that thereby all the nights of the year may be sanctified and hallowed.”
As the old year draws to a close and a new year is about to begin, ushered in by the Selihot prayers, may we learn to approach our maker, the God of Israel, in true humility and in the spirit of gratitude of the bikurim. And may we be privileged to fulfill especially the concluding words of the mikra bikurim: “And you shall be happy in all the goodness that the Lord Your God has given you and your household.” Amen.