This week’s Parsha begins with the Mitzvah of Bikurim – the bringing of the first fruits to ripen on the tree. Part of the Bikurim ceremony involved the owner of the fruit making a declaration on presenting his basket of first-fruits to the officiating Kohain. Pasuk 26:3 states, “And you should say to him;” meaning, the owner should direct his declaration to the Kohain. In explaining this part of the verse, Rashi referenced the Sifri that says, the purpose of bringing the Bikurim and making the declaration is to show that the owner is not an ingrate.
Rashi’s reference of the Sifri’s statement needs to be understood. How is the Bikurim ceremony more a declaration of appreciation than any other Mitzvah? The primary reason we do any Mitzvah is that we owe G-d our obedience. If we did not recognize G-d’s control, or if we did not care about His authority, we would not observe His commandments. Therefore, the performance of any Mitzvah is an acknowledgment of G-d’s dominion and a statement of our appreciation for all His benevolence. Why then does the Sifri present Bikurim as a unique expression of our appreciation more so than any other Mitzvah?
My Grandfather ZT’L, in Darash Moshe, explained the unique appreciation expressed in the Mitzvah of Bikurim. He asked the following question. The Mitzvah of Bikurim involved the farmer selecting the very first fruits to have ripened on the tree and giving them away to the Kohanim in the Bais Hamikdash. The Talmud tells us that a person would rather keep one measure of his own produce than trade it for nine measures of someone else’s produce. The fruits of our own labors are far more valuable to us than the fruits of someone else’s labor. Therefore, the only person who cares about the first fruits more so than any other fruit to ripen on the tree is the owner. Why did Hashem insist that the first fruit be given away to the Kohain? Why not give the Kohain the second fruit to ripen? As far as the Kohain is concerned, fruit is fruit. The Mitzvah wasn’t even to give the best fruit of the season, only the first! The only person who would have a special investment in the first fruit would be the owner. As the first fruit of his labor, he would have an emotional attachment to those fruits, even if they were not the best of the season. For the officiating Kohain, it is another basket of fruit. Why must the owner give them away?
Rav Moshe explains that because the farmer has a special investment in the first fruit he must give them away. The reason we would rather have one measure of our own more so than nine measure of someone else’s is that we feel a degree of ownership in our accomplishment. We are proud of the effort we have expended in raising a successful crop of fruit. Farming is a very taxing labor. It involves waking up early and going to sleep late. It demands vigilance against potential infestations of disease and insects. It requires knowledge of weather patterns and the chances of frost, drought, or flood. Therefore, we are pleased with our efforts when the season ends successfully. We hungrily anticipate the arrival of that first succulent fruit of our labors. However, that feeling of personal pride and success is fundamentally misplaced. It is G-d Who deserves the rights of the first fruit. He is the one Who controlled the circumstances of time and nature that resulted in the growth and development of the fruit. Therefore, it is specifically the first fruit that must be brought to the Kohain.
Rashi referenced the Sifri who explained that the reason we address our declaration of appreciation to the Kohain is because the Kohain is Hashem’s representative. The Kohain does not personally care whether it is the first fruit or the last fruit. It is not for his sake that we present the Bikurim. It is for our sake. We are the ones who need to be reminded that whatever we have, regardless of our personal effort and apparent involvement, is truly the result of G-d’s love and benevolence rather than our efforts and labors.
The specific placement of any event or Mitzvah in the Torah is always intentional. Therefore, we are able to ask, why does the Mitzvah of Bikurim follow the Mitzvah to remember the evil of Amalek at the end of last week’s Parsha?
Chazal told us that the basic character of Amalek was “to deny goodness”- to be ungrateful. There are a number of ways to understand the meaning of “to deny goodness”. One possibility is: G-d, Who is the source of all goodness, is referred to as Tov – Good. Therefore, Amalek’s character is to deny G-d. Denial of G-d and His goodness requires that Amalek first recognize that there is a G-d Who is the source of all that is good. They are not just evil because they do not know that there is good in the world. Amalek is evil because they know that G-d exists and that He is the source of all benefit and goodness. However, their raison d’etre is to oppose G-d wherever and whenever they can.
Let’s be honest with our feelings about this Mitzvah. The Mitzvah to wipe out Amalek should go against what is hopefully our tendency toward compassion and mercy. Yet, G-d commanded us to set aside our natural inclinations toward compassion and mercy and kill men, women, and children. This must be among the most difficult Mitzvos for us to perform! Why must we destroy them? Why don’t we attempt to teach them and change them? Why didn’t G-d give them the opportunity to do Teshuva?
It must be that the entire being and values of Amalek were focused on doing battle with the forces of goodness on behalf of evil. Evil was their god. Therefore, there was no hope for their rehabilitation. They traded in evil, lived for evil, and they were prepared to die for evil. Therefore, G-d commanded us to destroy them.
At the conclusion of the Megilah (Esther) reading, there is a blessing and a prayer that begins with the words, “Asher Haynee – Who balked.” The prayer clearly states that Hamman was ungrateful because he denied the favor that Mordecai’s ancestor King Shaul had done for his own ancestor, Agag the king of Amalek. “He would not remember Shaul’s compassion, that through his pity of Agag the foe was born.”
The prayer refers to the incident in Samuel 1 Chapter 15 when King Shaul had the opportunity of destroying the nation of Amalek. However, instead of fulfilling the command of G-d and obliterating every member of the nation, Shaul had compassion on their king, Agag, and did not kill him. Shmuel was sent by G-d to chastise Shaul for not fulfilling His command and to inform Shaul that he had lost the rights to being king of Israel.
When Shmuel arrived at the army camp of Shaul to deliver G-d’s tragic message, he saw Agag and immediately killed him. However, before Shmuel’s arrival, Agag had manged to impregnate a servant girl from whom Hamman was a descendent. This was the “favor” that Shaul had done for Agag for which Hamman’s desire to kill Mordecai and the Jews was deemed ungrateful.
Without needing to elaborate, the ludicrousness of the situation must be apparent to everyone. Because Shaul had wiped out all of Hamman’s ancestors except for one, therefore he owed a debt of gratitude to the descendents of his family’s murderer? What could the author of the prayer have meant?
Amalek was evil. Amalek believed in evil. Amalek’s reason for existence was to perpetrate evil and challenge goodness. Therefore, they were as committed to the advance of evil as we are committed to the advance of goodness. Just as we are prepared to die for the sake of G-d, so too they were prepared to die for the sake of evil. In fact, they expected that at some point they would have to answer to G-d because they truly believed in G-d and their mission to limit His power whenever possible.
The reason they attacked the Jews at the time of the Exodus was not in hope of succeeding to abolish G-d. They knew they ultimately could not win against the Creator. However, they hoped to destroy the Jews and delay G-d from giving His Torah to humanity. They were prepared to die in order to accomplish this! Therefore, Agag knew that he would eventually die for his hatred of G-d and the Jewish people. In fact, he expected it, looked forward to it, and anticipated dying the glorious death of a martyr. However, Shaul unfortunately gave him a short reprieve allowing him to continue the line of Amalek. Agag was not angry with Shaul for killing his nation. He was disappointed in failing his personal and national mission to destroy the Jewish people and delay any further revelation of G-d’s goodness. However, their end was inevitable yet glorious. Therefore, Agag was grateful for Shaul’s misplaced mercy and allowing him the time to continue Amalek’s legacy. Hamman, the descendant of Agag, should have extended that gratitude to Mordecai, the descendant of Shaul.
The reason for the juxtaposition of the Mitzvah to remember the evil of Amalek with the Mitzvah of Bikurim is now clear. Moshe was contrasting the two extremes of ingratitude and gratitude. Those who recognize G-d’s existence but deny their obligations to Him, are denying His goodness and their responsibility to be thankful. They are ingrates. Those who recognize G-d and embrace their responsibilities to live by His rules acknowledge G-d’s benevolence and willingly express their appreciation and gratitude by lovingly offering the first fruits of their labor. As the Sifri says, the owner declares to the Kohain, “I have brought the first fruits of my labor; therefore, I am not an ingrate.”
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi Aron Tendler and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA.