One of the mitzvas religious duties described in this week's Torah (Bible) reading (Deut. 26:1-29:8) is that of bikurim, the offering of the first-harvested fruit on the premises of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
The Jewish farmer, after surviving the arduous task of
planting and harvesting his precious and hard-won crops, brings the fruit of
his labors to the kohen, priest, in Holy Temple in Jerusalem. There,
upon handing over his basket of bikurim to the kohen and the altar, a prayer of thanksgiving and hope is recited.
At first blush, the language of that prayer appears to be out of place with what the bikurim ceremony is meant to commemorate. Instead of the expected and
logical thanks for the rain, the sunlight and the bounty of the fertile
earth, the prayer is a short review of ancient Jewish history. It tells of the travails of our founding forefathers, the descent of the tribes of Israel into Egyptian bondage, their eventual redemption from that bondage and their entry into the Holy Land, and the struggle of Israel to establish itself in its promised land.
And then the prayer almost abruptly switches to the acknowledgment of the Divine's
bounty in helping the farmer bring this first-harvested fruit offering to
the Temple. What is the import of this construction of the prayer? Why the
history lesson? And what are we to make of this recitation of the prayer of
People are justifiably proud of their accomplishments. After all,
one's efforts and talents, time and struggle, are of no minor consequence in
one's life. Many times, we feel that this is perhaps all we have to show for
our years on earth. Therefore, there is a human tendency to view one's
achievements in a somewhat exaggerated fashion without being able to place
the true accomplishment in realistic perspective. In life, individual or
communal, nothing takes place in a vacuum.
There is always a past to our efforts and struggles, as we hope there will
be a future to them as well. If we do not somehow see ourselves in the light
of that past, we really cannot be aware of the true nature of our
accomplishment in the present.
The disregard of the past is a common illness in contemporary life. Much of secular society, and secular Jewry, blithely ignore the lessons of our past and of general history at large. Same-sex marriages, blind pagan worship of environment and nature,
widespread use of addictive drugs, a disproportionate emphasis in life on
sports and unwarranted adulation of athletes and the strong, feel-good and
undemanding moral standards, all were staple components of the downfall of
society in the Classical Era of Greece and Rome. But our world blithely
ignores all of the lessons of the past. We see our society as being new and
progressive, existing in a vacuum, cleverer by far than all generations that
That is the false reality that the Torah warns about in this prayer of the
Before the Jewish farmer, proud of his achievements and
confident of his future and success, proclaimed his personal victory in the
holy Temple of the Divine, he first had to recite and remember a basic lesson of
Jewish history. He had to admit that life and society did not begin with
him, that his "first harvest" bikurim was preceded by many other such
This sobering assessment of life is realism uncomfortable, disturbing, thought provoking, challenging and valuable.
Torah prescribes this realism as the gateway to wisdom. We should all
treasure our accomplishments in life. We should love and value our children
and family. We can be proud of our companies, awards, enterprises and
commercial successes. But we should be wise and cautious and remember our
past in assessing our present.
The necessity to avoid hubris and be realistic about our achievements is the key to true human success.
That may be accomplished by studied knowledge and appreciation of our historic past.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein --- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and
books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com