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Parsha Ki Tavo

September 15, 2014

An Attitude to our Gratitude
Ki Tavo, 5774
Shmuel Herzfeld

A few days ago the Sisterhood of our shul told me that they wanted to throw a Kiddush this week in honor of my being the rabbi of this shul for ten years.

When they told me that, the words hit home. Ten years have just flown by like the snap of a finger. I immediately felt overcome with emotion and I explained to the Sisterhood that I too wanted to co-sponsor the Kiddush on behalf of the shul, which I love with all of my heart and soul.

My feeling of love and gratitude to the shul is surpassed by my gratitude to Hashem for His great gift of allowing me to be the rabbi of our shul. This is why in honor of our ten years together my wife and I are giving charity to our shul and we are marking the occasion by co-sponsoring the Kiddush, a party –a seudat mitzvah--in honor of the occasion.

Figuring out how to express gratitude can sometimes be complicated.

We are fortunate enough to have a beautiful persimmon tree in our front yard. A few months ago as we were watching the first fruit on our tree bud, my wife turned to me and said that we should enact some sort of faux bikkurim ritual. Of course the actual bikkurim ritual only applies to the seven species of fruit of the land of Israel and only when these fruits grow in the land of Israel, but my wife felt that the beauty of the moment should not be lost. She felt that that the fruit budding on our tree was an opportunity to teach our children about the mitzvah of bikkurim and about appreciating the beauty of Hashem’s world.

On the other hand, I had misgivings about such a ritual. I completely agreed with her sentiment, but I was concerned that there may be some halakhic problems with enacting a faux bikkurim ritual.

So I consulted with a spiritual mentor of mine who told me that my wife was correct as long as we were very clear with our children that it was not a real bikkurim ceremony and that we were just pretending.

The tension I felt about whether or not to mimic a bikkurim ceremony for the purpose of marking that special occasion and also for the purpose of educating our children is a tension that some of us may feel when it comes to expressing our gratitude to Hashem. We want to express our gratitude to Hashem for an occasion—for example, that we are able to witness the beauty of a fruit tree budding in our yard--and at the same time we want doing something that is an authentic and meaningful reflection of our tradition and doesn’t in any way cheapen our relationship with our holy rituals.

What is the bikkurim?

By understanding the bikkurim ceremony we can more properly appreciate the nuances of how to express our gratitude to Hashem.

Parashat Ki Tavo tells us that we must take “mei-reishit kol peri haadama, from the first fruits of the land” (26:2), place these fruits in a basket and travel to the Temple with the fruits.

The Mishnah (Bikkurim 3:1) tells us that a person goes down into his field when the fruits begin to bud. He sees the first fruit budding and ties a string around it and says, “harei zeh bikkurim, this fruit is my bikkurim.”

Rambam (Bikkurim 4:16) explains how the fruit is then transported to Jerusalem. After the fruits blossom the farmer places the fruits in a basket. All the people of that area then gather in the local town. In the morning the leader arises and proclaims: “Arise and let us ascend to Zion, to God our Lord.” An ox with golden horns and a crown of olive branches leads the procession to Jerusalem. The entire time a flute is playing before them as they walk. As they come near Jerusalem their fruits are adorned and beautified in beautiful baskets with birds tied to the baskets. Residents of the city of Jerusalem then meet this parade at the gates of Jerusalem by the residents and join with them in a march to the Temple itself.

At the Temple the basket of fruits is placed next to the altar and the kohen waives the fruits. After that the kohen was permitted to eat the fruits.

After the kohen waves the fruits an important passage was recited: the owner of the fruits would recite a passage expressing his gratitude, which we are familiar with from our Haggadah: arami oved avi. The text of the passage reflects the fact that we were once slaves in Egypt and we were then brought out of the land through great miracles and now are living in the land of milk and honey.

The proper time to do the mitzvah of bikkurim is from Shavuot through Sukkot as that is when we are most happy and we are harvesting our crops. Thus it is then that we must show our appreciation and express our gratitude. As Rashi teaches us it is very clear that the purpose of this passage is to demonstrate that we appreciate “chasdei hamakom, the kindness of God” (v.5), and that we are not ungrateful, or kafoi tovah (v.3).

In retrospect, I now realize that my wife was, of course, totally right. The bikkurim ceremony should not just be an ancient ceremony that has no connection to our lives. We should make the bikkurim ceremony relevant to how we live our lives today. The bikkurim of the Torah should impact the way we express our own gratitude today.

I encourage you to consider how you can incorporate themes of the bikkurim ceremony into your own spirituality.

Here are some elements from the ceremony that should consider bringing into our own lives in order to help us ritualize our expression of gratitude.

Lets call this exercise: bringing an “attitude to our gratitude.”

Here are three suggestions based upon the bikkurim ceremony for how to express our gratitude in a spiritually productive manner.

First, just as the bikkurim ceremony was a once a year reflection upon the blessings we have in our life, so too for ourselves, it is important to take a specific day every year and reflect on the good in our lives. Too often we only focus on the negative. As we reflect on the good we must be grateful to Hashem and remember that we weren’t always in this fortunate position. The text we recite at the bikkurim ceremony tells the story of how we were once slaves in Egypt and how we are now living our dream. The text is based on the idea of arami oved avi, we were once refugees in great distress. We tell this story on Pesach in the Haggadah, but it is a different story then because the story is told on a national and communal level. But the bikkurim ceremony reminds us that we should also do it once a year on a personal level with our families. Since there is no natural time for it, I suggest that we all do this exercise every year on parashat ki tavo, which happens to always come in the month of Elul.

Second, the bikkurim ceremony reminds us that we should give charity as an expression of gratitude. The Bikkurim fruit were given to the kohen to eat. This was a form of charity as the kohen was dependent upon donations in order to live. This tells us that an important theme of expressing gratitude is taking our successes and sharing it with others. When an amazing thing happens in our lives it is important to give a charitable gift as an expression of thanks to Hashem and also as a way of giving to others.

Three, the bikkurim ceremony was very festive. There was a parade marching to Jerusalem, with golden oxen and live music and a multitude of people. It sounds like a wild party. This teaches us that on certain occasions it is also appropriate to make a party as an expression of gratitude.

This week’s daf yomi taught us this lesson about throwing a party. The Talmud (Moed Kattan, 28a) tells us that when Rav Yosef reached the age of sixty he made a party for all the students of his yeshiva (yoma tova le-rabbanan). He explained that he threw the party because he had left the range of premature death by karet and was so grateful to Hashem. So he threw a party.

But his student, Abaye, questioned him and said, “Its true that you have left the range of karet as it relates to death under the age of sixty, but you can still die suddenly and thereby fall into the range of karet in that manner.” Rav Yosef answered: “Nekot lah nihah palga didakh, take at any rate half the matter in your hand.” In other words, even though he was not entirely out of the woods, half a success is still a reason to throw a party as an expression of gratitude.

In fact our rabbis codify this as halakhah. The Terumat Hadeshen threw a party for himself at the age of sixty. Other rabbis argued that the most appropriate age for such a party is actually seventy. Many are of the opinion that such a party is actually a seudat mitzvah. And the Chavot Yair argues that one should recite shehechiyanu at such a party. (The sources for all of these opinions can be found in Daf Digest for Moed Katan 28a.)

On a personal note I happen to be turning 40 in a month. Personally, I will pasken like the terumat hadeshen and wait till I am sixty before throwing a party, beli neder. But for those of my peers who are turning 40 there is a source in this week’s parasha about the specialness of the age of 40. The last Rashi in this week’s portion states, that “a person does not fully understand one’s teacher and one’s studies until after forty years.” This teaches that the age of forty is a very spiritual age and is worthy of a party expressing our gratitude to Hashem.

But most significantly, I am talking about gratitude not because I am turning 40 but because for the last ten years this shul has been an amazing place for our family to live.

The first Mishnah in Peah (1:1) teaches us that there is no measurement to how much fruit one must bring up as a bikkurim offering. Bikkurim is one of the categories about which there is no shiur, there is no measure. That is because gratitude can’t be scripted. It is endless. And that is how I feel about this community. My gratitude to it is endless.

Everyday that I am the rabbi of this shul is a great blessing. The verse in this week’s parashah says, “hayom hazeh, this day” (26:16-17). Rashi says that this means that everyday the mitzvot must always be in your eyes like it is a new day; like something something that you were commanded about for the very first time.

This is the way I feel about our shul. Every time I come to shul I feel like it is my first day on the job. That is how much I love being here.

For this and for so many other reasons I ask you now to respond to my beracha of shehechiyanu. Thank you Hashem for bring me to this moment in my life!

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