All Beginnings Are Hard
All Beginnings Are Hard
At the outset of this week’s Torah portion is the mitzvah of Bikkurim, First Fruits. It refers to the practice of bringing the beginning of one’s harvest as a gift to the priests at the Temple in Jerusalem. Upon its presentation, the Torah tells us that the person making the contribution would recite the following formal declaration, which may sound familiar since it appears in the Passover Hagadah:
An Aramean (Laban) tried to destroy my father (Jacob). He descended to Egypt and lived there, few in number, and there he became a great nation…. The Egyptians abused and afflicted us…. God took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land; a Land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, Lord.
Everyone was required to say this self-same brief summary of Jewish history when giving his fruit basket to the Kohen/Priest. It is certainly nice and proper to give tzedakah and support those who are wholly involved in religious practices such as the priests who devoted themselves to the Temple activities. But what was the purpose of citing the mini-history declaration? Give the present, tell him to enjoy it and be done. If there is anything to be said, I would think maybe the fellow would wish to tell the priest how hard he worked to produce the produce.
The idea of reaching back into one’s personal and national history is a common one in Judaism. זכור ימות עולם ” Remember the past” we are told elsewhere in Moshe’s speech in Deuteronomy. Every holiday in the calendar is linked to the phrase that we say in Kiddush, זכר ליציאת מצרים “A Remembrance of our Exodus from Egypt.” And even today, when we speak of the Holocaust we never lose sight of what was when we declare, “Never Again.”
The notion of recalling our origins is inextricably linked to a sense of gratitude. History and Gratitude – they go hand in hand and there are a few ways in which the two are connected.
When one knows from whence they came, they realize that they are a part of a larger history with innumerable factors, people and events that brought them to where they are now. They see that they didn’t get to their place in life all by themselves but through the efforts, initiatives and actions of others. When a person is aware of their history they will automatically feel thankful.
When we talk of personal history we cannot ignore the source of our very existence. In Jewish life and custom, the first words we declare when we wake up in the morning (as opposed to, “ungh, another day!”) are, “I gratefully thank you, living and eternal King, for you have returned my soul within me with compassion.” Before anything else, we need to start our day with a clear and unequivocal declaration of “Thank God I am alive!” We are instructed to never lose our sense of gratitude that we are blessed with life itself. It’s very easy to forget and to take for granted that we have another day to live. To combat this bad habit, every morning we say this little declaration that ensures our realization that each and every day is another new gift and opportunity and not more of the “same old same old”, as some might respond when asked how they are.
Furthermore, when it comes to giving first fruits – or any other form of charitable gift – by giving up and giving back some of our accomplishments and gains, we acknowledge that those achievements can all be traced back to God in the first place. Recognizing that all we have is ultimately from the Almighty changes our attitude towards sharing that good and giving to others.
If I go through life convinced that “through my might and the strength of my hand” (Deut 8:17) I have accomplished, then I falsely think that it is all mine and maybe I will be a nice guy and give some charity. But when I realize that every effort I make is with the Almighty’s assistance, support and blessing – then naturally I want to give some away since it is not wholly mine in the first place. With God in the picture I have a much greater sense of obligation to give to another, and doing so reminds me that I am in a partnership with God regarding the blessings I have. I recognize that whatever new level of accomplishment I may have achieved is a result of the God’s help. As the saying goes, “Man proposes and God disposes.”
But there is another aspect of gratitude that is related to our beginnings and personal history. Each and every one of us can look at our lives and see how far we have travelled to get to where we are today. For every success we have achieved regarding family, business, overcoming our failings, or anything else, we have all gotten to places that we would never have thought possible in the early going. And that is because every one of us has had times when our lives were tenuous and fragile, when things were touch-and-go and we were unsure if we would make it. However, not only did we survive, but we even grew and flourished.
This is why the gift to the Kohen is presented with this historical recollection. The giver is touching upon the time when Jacob almost didn’t make it from the evil designs of his father-in-law, Laban who tried to utterly destroy him. He is recalling the time when the Jewish people almost didn’t make it because of the atrocities suffered in Egypt. He is reminded that, but for the grace of God, he would not be at this time and place in his life that is so blessed that he has enough to give to another.
Rosh HaShanah is just around the corner. As we prepare for the day where we contemplate who will be written in the Book of Life and who will not, there is no greater lesson than the one imparted by this mitzvah of Bikkurim. The lesson that Life is all a gift and that it needs to be shared with others. A lesson we only get when we trace our steps back to the beginning of who we are… and how we got here.
Real real gone
I can’t stand up by myself
Don’t you know I need Your help
And I’m real real gone
Some people say
You can make it on your own
Oh you can make it if you try
I know better now
You can’t stand up alone