First Fruits*

by Eliezer Segal

Exodus 23

19 The first of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.

The ultimate philosophical question might very well be: Why is there something, rather nothing?
This is the unanswerable conundrum that turns scientists into philosophers, and sends philosophers looking for refuge in the realms of religion.
As overwhelming as this mystery might appear to the philosopher or scientist, the midrash suggests a solution that is sublime in its simplicity--or is it naïvité?

Rabbi Huna said in the name of Rav Mattenah: The universe was created for the sake of three things: hallah [the dough offering set aside for the priests], tithes, and first-fruits [bikkurim]; as it says (Genesis 1:1) in [or: for the sake of] the beginning [Hebrew: be-reshit] God created. Reshith designates hallah, as it is written (Deuteronomy 15:20): Of the first (reshith) of your dough; reshith designates tithes, as it is written (18:4): The first- fruits (reshith) of thy corn; and reshith designates first-fruits, as it is written (Exodus 23:19): The choicest (reshith) first-fruits of thy land, etc.

Genesis Rabbah 1:7

This homily employs some typical midrashic rhetorical devices: It plays around with the ambiguities of Hebrew inflexions, so that in the beginning is read as for the sake of the 'first'; and it strings together disparate biblical passages based on a common word. However, beyond the clever rhetoric, it is difficult to discern any useful lesson in Rav Mattenah's words. Granted that Judaism regards the observance of mitzvoth--religious precepts--as the central expression of devotion, and hence perhaps, as a purpose of creation--the question still remains: What is so special about these three commandments that would elevate them to the status of that for the sake of which the universe was created?

A fascinating interpretation of this midrash was offered by Rabbi Löw of Prague (1525-1609)--the Maharal. The Maharal observed that the three commandments mentioned in this midrash represent three different kinds of blessings that the Almighty bestows on our world:

  1. Hallah is taken from the dough that is used to make bread. Bread is traditionally regarded as the staff of life, and therefore stand for those things that are absolutely essential for basic subsistence.

  2. Tithes are taken mostly from the fruits of trees. Fruits are not quite as essential as bread for minimal survival--but we would feel impoverished and incomplete if we had no fruits at all. This is a different level of blessing.

  3. First-fruits constitute a special subset of fruits. Physically they are not really different from normal fruit, and yet their setting lends them a greater appeal for the farmer and the consumer. At the time of their appearance, they have been unavailable for several month, and therefore they are especially delectable and tempting. Some commentators have noted how the observance of this mitzvah requires extraordinary self-restraint when the owner overcome his natural instincts and offers those juicy new fruits to the priest.

At these three distinctive levels, argues Rabbi Löw, these three specific commandments provide us with unique opportunities to emulate the divine creative process.

To return to our initial question of Why is there a world?--the spiritual and moral answer favoured by Maharal is: Because God is a being who is overflowing with blessings and goodness, and he needs something other than himself upon which to bestow all that goodness. The role of humans, as understood by the Torah, is not merely to receive the blessings, but to become part of a divine chain-reaction, as we continue to generate love and kindness to our society and our environment. In fashioning human beings, the Almighty has created instruments who are capable of initiating new flows of generosity and compassion, in dynamically loving universe. Lord know there are people in the world who are in dire and immediate need of our assistance to merely continue their physical existence in the face of human or natural threats. Our mandate, however, does not stop there. The symbolism of the bikkurim, the first fruits reminds us of our obligation to instill beauty and spirituality into the lives of our fellow inhabitants of the universe.

Conventional theologians have spoken at length about monotheistic belief, in the sense of denying multiplicity of deities, or even of multiplicity within God. In the light of these insights of the Maharal, I would suggest that there is a fundamental difference between the perception of God as one and as first. Divine unity invokes an image of absolute transcendence, completeness and self-sufficiency. On the other hand, it is only possible to be first in a relationship with others. When God is perceived as first rather than just one it necessarily defines him in loving relationship with his creatures.

Accordingly, when we observe these mitzvoth we are striving to emulate that aspect of the divine personality and to carry out the divine plan for the universe: We receive the blessings in order that we may continue to exemplify the qualities of generosity, compassion and lovingkindness.

In bringing Bikkurim (as we pray that we will be able to do when the Temple is rebuilt in a redeemed Jerusalem), we remember that we are not only a singular people, like the unique God--but we are also a first nation in that our mission involves carrying forward the beautiful chain reaction of proliferating divine abundance throughout the world.


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My e-mail address is eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


*Delivered at Congregation House of Jacob - Mikveh Israel, Calgary, June 3, 2006 .