Our sedra opens with a description of the rite of bringing bikurim, or the first fruits. When a landowner plants fruit trees, he may not touch their fruit for the first three years, but on the fourth, he brings the crops, known as neta rev’ai, to the Bet Hamikdash and gives them to the kohanim there. Along with this presentation, the owner also tells over the story of our people, a concise version that we over-analyze in during the Pesach Seder, perhaps to highlight how miraculous a Jew growing his own fruit in Israel is. This is followed by one final directive which concludes the section of Bikurim:
וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ–וּלְבֵיתֶךָ: אַתָּה, וְהַלֵּוִי, וְהַגֵּר, אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ
And you shall rejoice in all of the good which Hashem your Lord has given to you and your house and the Levi and stranger among you. (דברים כו:יא)
The final message of the story is that the happiness of bikurim, the joy and excitement of presenting first fruits at the Bet Hamikdash is not the end of the story- these emotional highs must continue beyond minute one (or year three, if you will) of being a landowner. Even when times get difficult in the coming years, when summers are harsh, when the land must lie fallow for an entire shemita year, the farmer can look back on the glorious day when he brought his bikurim, and remember why he continues.
One of the landowner’s biggest responsibilities is the yearly bringing of terumot and ma’asrot, among them the portions for kohanim, levi’im and alternating years of ma’aser for poor people and what is called “ma’aser sheni.” Ma’aser Sheni is a tenth of the produce of the farmer’s field on the first, second, fourth and fifth years of the shemita cycle, which must be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there (or redeemed for money which is spent on produce in the holy city). Upon bringing the produce (or money) to the Bet Hamikdash, the landowner once again recites a passage to the kohaim, one which is also brought at the beginning of Parshat Ki Tavo, though it has a very different energy. Even its name, “viduy ma’asrot,” hints to a less happy and exciting feeling- it is not a “bringing,” but is rather a “confession.”
The landowner pledges to Hashem that he has been honest in all of his accounting, and has treated the holy crops with the respect due to them. “שָׁמַעְתִּי, בְּקוֹל ה’ אֱלֹקי–עָשִׂיתִי, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתָנִי- I have listened to the voice of Hashem my Lord- I have done all that He has commanded.” The viduy concludes with a prayer:
הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן-הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבָרֵךְ אֶת-עַמְּךָ אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֵת הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לָנוּ–כַּאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתָּ לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ
Look forth from Your holy habitation, from the heavens, and bless Your people, Israel, and the land which You have given us, as You swore to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. (שם טו)
In contrast to the ceremony of the bikurim, which ended with the command to “share the wealth,” the confession of the ma’asrot ends with a prayer, for Hashem to fulfill His promises and bless the Jewish People just as the landowner has fulfilled his promises of ma’asrot and kedusha. By following the complex process of growing fruit in Israel, realizing the joy and miraculous nature of agriculture there, and sharing the wealth with others, the farmer has demonstrated that he truly appreciates the promise of “ארץ זבת חלב ודבש,” and is worthy of Hashem extending His blessing to him and all of Am Yisrael.
Even those of us who are not fortunate enough to be involved in Israeli agriculture, are faced with the same challenges. After the initial high of kissing the ground after getting off the aliyah flight, it’s often difficult to feel the positivity, especially when interacting and dealing with difficult Israeli bureaucracies (and also difficult Israelis, for that matter). When the going gets tough, we can always return to “ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ה’ אלקיך”- remembering the importance of our mission and the happiness that despite “ארמי אובד אבי,” we are in Israel- and use this energy to help smooth the rougher parts of absorption.
The next level is returning years later, after one is already settled and adjusted and absorbed to the Israeli lifestyle, to help bring the happiness to new olim who are just getting started, and have so many difficulties ahead of them- this is a higher fulfillment of “ושמחת בכל הטוב” and leaves the not so chadash oleh without any doubts that they’ve covered “עשיתי כאשר ציויתני.” When an older oleh uses their experience, their insight, and their energy to help out newer ones, they truly help bring beracha onto themselves, onto those they are interacting with, and onto the greater Jewish world in general- their actions are the most explicit form of “השקיפה ממעון קדשך… וברך את עמך את ישראל.”
This summer, I had the opportunity to personally attend both ceremonies celebrating the arrival of Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flights, to help welcome over 600 olim during their first exciting and overwhelming hours as Israeli citizens. However, possibly more inspiring than interacting with these “bringers of bikurim,” may have been the hundreds of older, more settled olim who came to welcome family, friends and complete strangers to the Holy Land. These “bringers of ma’aser sheni” had such amazing stories to share, and brought such positivity to the ceremony, despite the early hour, bringing the experience to the next level. Standing there, with two similar groups with subtely different, yet equally strong energies, I had no doubt that Hashem was bringing down beracha onto the entire world, and now I see why- “עשיתי כאשר צויתני,” I have done everything I can to spread the happiness of renewed life in Eretz Yisrael, “השקיפה ממעון קדשך… וברך את עמך את ישראל…,” come and bless us for continued good.
As we inch closer and closer to the end of the month of Elul, known by the acronym Ani Ledodi V’Dodi Li as a time for strengthening in our care for fellow Jews, we must embrace the message of the bikurim and ma’asrot as well. With Hashem’s help, if we can embrace the dual message of “עשיתי כאשר צויתני,” then we will all merit the beracha of wealth and living “ארץ זבת חלב ודבש,” very very soon.