August 7, 2018

Acts of mercy, gifts of food (Ki Tavo)

This Shabbat we read Parshat Ki Tavo which describes the ritual of bringing the Bikkurim to the Kohanim in the Beit Hamikdash, and this Motzei Shabbat Ashkenazim begin reciting Selichot (which Sephardim have already been reciting since the start of the month of Ellul) which has at its core the י”ג מדות הרחמים (the 13 Attributes of Mercy that Hashem taught Moshe in Shemot 34:6-7).

From first glance these two texts appear to have little in common. One concerns the physical bounty of First Fruits which farmers joyfully brought as gifts to the Kohanim, and the other is the formula for heavenly forgiveness about which we are told that “whenever Israel sins, let them do (יעשו) this [the Thirteen Attributes] in its proper order and I will forgive them” (Rosh Hashanah 17b). However, as the Meshech Chochmah (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) points out in his commentary to Devarim 26:11, there is more to this than meets the eye.

In the Parshat Bikkurim, we find God’s name being mentioned on thirteen occasions, and just a few verses after the 13 Attributes of Mercy appear in Shemot 34:6-7 we are taught that ‘the first of your land’s early produce shall you bring to the Temple of God’ (Shemot 34:26). According to the Meshech Chochmah these two factors means that there is a strong connection between these two ideas. However, like the greatest of movies, he leaves the reader with this cliffhanger leaving it for us to work out what the unifying idea is.

To do so we must return to the above mentioned Gemara which states that “whenever Israel sins, let them do (יעשו) this [the Thirteen Attributes] in its proper order and I will forgive them” (Rosh Hashanah 17b). While some have translated the word יעשו as ‘say’ as if to mean that the mere recitation of these verses achieves forgiveness, a more correct translation is that we should emulate God by ‘doing’ these 13 attributes of Mercy, meaning that we should be compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abundant in kindness and truth, preserve kindness and forgive others.

Understood this way, Bikkurim takes on an entirely new identity. Rather than merely being the gift of First Fruits, it is actually the gift of the farmer’s choicest produce to a person in need (nb. Rambam writes that this rule applies in many other areas of life, and that when we feed or clothe the needy we should give of our finest – see Issurei Mizbeach 7:11) and it expresses the compassion and graciousness that God wishes us to perform.

Moreover, the declaration made by the farmer when they bring their Bikkurim (see Devarim 26:5-9) itself supports this idea. We are told that when the Bikkurim were brought to the Temple, the farmers would recount how God saw the affliction of the Jewish people in Egypt and how He redeemed them from slavery. Ultimately, what the farmer is saying is that just as God was there for those in need, so too their gift of Bikkurim emulates God by bringing their best produce as a gift to others.

While we may recite the 13 attributes of Mercy in selichot, the laws of Bikkurim provide us with an inspiring example of ‘doing’ acts of mercy by giving to others, and by placing His name 13 times in the portion of Bikkurim, God teaches us that He is most present when we give of our best to others.

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