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Peninim on the Torah

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Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum
Hebrew Academy of Cleveland


That you shall take of the first of every fruit of the ground… which Hashem, your G-d, gives you. (26:2)

The parsha of Bikurim is unique, in presenting the celebration and pomp that accompanies bringing the Bikurim to Yerushalayim. In vivid detail, Chazal relate how everyone was caught up in this mitzvah. Of course, any act of hakoras hatov, gratitude, should be publicized, so that more people will acknowledge the vital role of our benefactor, Hashem, in everything that we do. The Mishnah in Meseches Bikurim describes how the farmer would enter his field and notice a fig tree that had bloomed. He would immediately pick its first fruit and set it aside for Bikurim. The Te'einah, fig tree, is one of the seven species with which Eretz Yisrael is blessed. Two others are mentioned in the Mishnah: the pomegranate and grape; yet the fig, which is not listed first in the sequences of the seven species, is the one which is underscored in the Mishnah. Furthermore, why does the Mishnah include the grape and pomegranate, but exclude the olive?

Horav Menachem Ziemba, zl, quotes the Arizal who posits that the mitzvah of Bikurim is penance for the sin of the meraglim, spies, who rejected Eretz Yisrael. The three fruits which they brought back from their expedition to reconnoiter the land were the fig, grape and pomegranate. Thus, by appropriately focusing on these fruits, we demonstrate our love of the Land and our gratitude to the Almighty for His beneficence. We still must address why the fig is the first fruit mentioned by the Mishnah.

Furthermore, why all the pomp? Imagine that a person whose primary vocation is accounting, yet he has a few fig trees in his backyard. He notices the fruit beginning to ripen, so he must drop everything, take leave of his job and travel to Yerushalayim. He is not alone; an entire country- side of people joins him on his/their journey. What will happen to the grocery store owner, the pharmacist, accountant, lawyer, tailor etc…? Everybody will take a leave of absence for three weeks? All of this because of a few figs? This practical question is asked by none other than the Alshich HaKadosh.

On the Seder night, we begin the Haggadah experience with a recounting of our natural history going back to Lavan Ha'Arami, the uncle of our Patriarch Yaakov Avinu, who made the first attempt to subvert our nation from ever coming into existence. This historical perspective is part of the farmer's declaration upon coming to Yerushalayim with his Bikurim. What relationship exists between Pesach and Bikurim?

In the commentary of the Midrash Rabbah on the beginning of Sefer Bereishis, Chazal say that the world was created in the merit of the mitzvah of Bikurim. The Alshich wonders what about the mitzvah of Bikurim elevates it over such worthy mitzvos as Shabbos and others.

One last question concerning another Yom Tov, Festival, which might seem to be completely out of line with the subject matter, is asked by Horav Moshe Rosenblum, Shlita. It is an accepted custom, cited by the Rama, that one should not sleep on Rosh Hashanah. The source for this custom is a Talmud Yerushalmi which states: "One who sleeps on Rosh Hashanah - his mazel, fortune, for the coming year will also sleep." The question is obvious: Does this mean that for the individual who weeps on Rosh Hashanah, his mazel will also weep? May one who laughs on Rosh Hashanah look forward to a successful year filled with joy? What about sleeping is so compelling?

Rav Rosenblum responds to the question. The world was created for man. Everything that preceded him was created specifically for the purpose of satisfying man. Why was man created? In order that he should acknowledge his debt of gratitude to the Almighty and not be an ingrate. The Alshich adds that everything was prepared for man, in order that he realize the significance of gratitude and its inextricable connection to serving Hashem. One who is a kafui tov, ingrate, cannot possibly serve Hashem properly.

Bikurim is that mitzvah which imbues man with hakoras hatov. Indeed, gratitude is its sole purpose. Man drops everything - his business, livelihood, family - everything - Why? He is going up to Yerushalayim to say, "Thank you, Hashem." He took us out of Egypt, liberating us from a physical bondage that had lasted over two centuries. We were redeemed amid incredible miracles and wonders, unprecedented and unrepeated throughout the annals of history. We were brought to Eretz Yisrael, the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. We arise in the morning, and - even before we wash our hands - we recite Modeh Ani - "Thank You Hashem." Why? Because this is the reason that Hashem created man.

Man was created on the sixth day of Creation, which was Rosh Hashanah (considering that the first day of Creation was Elul 25). Man was the purpose of Creation; thus, the goal of Creation is to imbue hakoras hatov. The first day of the year, the day on which man was created for hakoras hatov, is Rosh Hashanah. It, therefore, makes sense that this day should be replete with gratitude, singing Hashem's praises and thanking Him for all that He has given to us.

Now that we acknowledge what should have happened that day, let us focus on what really took place on that fateful day. The Midrash relates the sequence of events, hour by hour, on the day on which Adam HaRishon was created. At the ninth hour of the day, Adam was commanded not to eat of the Eitz HaDaas, Tree of Knowledge. On the tenth hour, he ate the fruit. The eleventh hour was his judgment, and, on the twelfth hour, the verdict of continued life was rendered. Hashem said to Adam, "This shall be a sign for your offspring: as you stood before Me in judgment and were cleared, likewise they, too, will stand before Me on this day (Rosh Hashanah) and be cleared."

What was Adam's sin? Actually, it was two sins in one. First, he ate of the tree's fruit. Second, he blamed it all on Chavah. Essentially, he told Hashem, "It was the woman whom You gave me that put me up to this." Rashi comments: "Here, Adam was ungrateful." Not only did he not thank Hashem for giving him a wife, he pointed the blame for his sins on his wife and laid the blame at Hashem's feet. All this took place on Rosh Hashanah - the day on which hakoras hatov should be intensified. Adam appears to have done just the opposite.

Ingratitude is the root of the problem. Chazal say that ultimately Adam was banished from Gan Eden for his ingratitude. The Jewish People angered Hashem with their ingratitude. This, explains the Sefas Emes, is the reason that the Parshah of Bikurim precedes Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is when we coronate Hashem and accept His monarchy over us. Without exhibiting gratitude, one cannot accept the yoke of Heaven. The two go hand in hand.

Now, let us return to our original question and note how everything fits into place. The Maor Va'Shemesh writes that the mitzvah of Bikurim atones for Adam's sin in eating of the Eitz Hadaas. He quotes the Mishnah in Bikurim, "A man goes into his field and sees a fig tree that has bloomed." The Talmud Berachos 40 contends that the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam was - a fig. Indeed, the Torah writes that, following the sin, Adam and Chavah realized that they were unclothed. They wrapped themselves in fig branches. Why? Chazal say that no other tree - other than the one concerning which they sinned - was willing to give them its branches. Now we understand the significance of the fig tree, which helps man to atone for the sin of ingratitude of primordial Man regarding his wife.

Next, the Noam Elimelech wonders how the serpent was able to interact with Chavah without her husband's awareness. He quotes Chazal, who say that Adam was sleeping! Now we understand why we should not sleep on Rosh Hashanah - the day set aside for hakoras hatov. Imagine, repeating Adam's sin over again. He slept, so, in turn, we must not sleep.

One last question: What about Arami oveid avi, "the Aramean sought to kill my father (Yaakov)"? What is the relationship between the Bikurim declaration and Pesach? Simple. When we say, "Thank you," it must be all encompassing. We must go back to the source, the origin of our debt of gratitude. We were redeemed from Egypt - but did it all start there? No! It began with Lavan. If that rasha would have had his way, there would be no Pesach, no Eretz Yisrael and no Bikurim. Now that we have it all, we must acknowledge its Source and pay our due to Hashem. May this be our merit for the coming year.

You shall come to whomever will be the Kohen… and you shall say to him, "I declare today to Hashem, your G-d." (26:3)

The individual who brings the Bikurim makes a declaration: "I have come to the land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give to us." Rashi comments concerning the necessity of making a declaration which underscores our gratitude to the Almighty for giving us the land, She'eincha kafui tovah, "That you are not an ingrate." It is a requirement for the landowner to express his gratitude. As a result of human nature, people do not want to be beholden to anyone. They look for any and every opportunity or excuse not to express their gratitude. The mitzvah of Bikurim serves one primary purpose. All of the pomp and publicity, the whole to-do is for one reason: to show that one is not a kafui tov. The Torah reiterates a number of times, "The land that You gave us," in order to emphasize that whatever we have is due to Hashem's beneficence.

Horav Moshe Shmuel Shapiro, zl, explains that, exclusive of the fact that hakoras hatov, appreciation and gratitude, is an exemplary character trait to possess, it also brings one closer to deveikus b'Hashem, clinging/closeness to Hashem. He supports this idea with a pasuk from the end of the parsha, "But Hashem did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear until this day" (28:3). It was only after we had experienced all of the wonderful favors and good fortune that we were able to come close to Him. By acknowledging our good fortune, we realize how much we really owe Him, thereby clinging to Him.

Hakoras hatov saves one from falling into the abyss of sin. Sin is a crude and vulgar payback for the good fortune we receive from Hashem. Is there anything more contemptible than a guest who acts miserably towards his host, who has gone out of his way to provide him with a place to eat and sleep in comfort? We respond that we would never do this, but when we stop to consider the way we act, the manner in which we daven, learn, perform mitzvos, we will be forced to concede that, in effect, we are kefuyei tov.

The Rosh Yeshivah posits that one who is makir tov, lives a life of constant gratitude to Hashem, is a much more refined person, a person who is distant from sin and failure, since G-d is so much a part of his life. He supports this idea from Yaakov Avinu, who, upon being questioned by Eisav, Mi eilah? "Who are these (children)?" the Patriarch replied, ha'yiladim asher chanan Elokim es avdecha, "The children whom G-d has graciously given your servant" (Bereishis 33:5). Yaakov acknowledged that everything which he possessed was a gift. If he had children, it was a blessing from Hashem. It was not a "natural occurrence."

In his Aderes Eliyahu, the Gaon, zl, m'Vilna, writes that the path to achieve gratitude to Hashem is attained by referring to everything in the Name of Hashem. When someone asks about your family, you should respond, "I have been blessed by Hashem;" "I Baruch Hashem earn a living;" "Thank G-d, everyone is healthy;" "Life is good - Baruch Hashem."

What does "thank you" consist of? What must be taken into consideration upon saying, "Thank you"? The Torah answers this question in six pesukim. The Bikurim were brought to the Bais Hamikdash amid great pomp and as an expression of our gratitude to the Almighty for the Land, the produce, the successful yield. The presentation of the Bikurim is accompanied with a six-sentence homily recalling our history: Lavan tried to do us in; we descended to Egypt where we spent a few centuries as slaves to Pharaoh; we cried out to Hashem, Who redeemed us from Egypt; we were not a large nation; after traveling through the wilderness for forty years, we entered the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now, "I am here with my first fruits!"

The verbosity of this expression of gratitude is evident. The question is: Why? What is wrong with a simple, "Thank you"? Or, even a not-so-simple, "Thank you"? Does one have to recite an entire megillah in order to express his gratitude? Yes! The Torah is teaching us that saying, "Thank you," should never be a simple line in a card or a few practiced words. Expressing gratitude articulates one's realization and acknowledgment that, if not for the favor he received, he would be a different person. His feelings of gratitude should reflect the entire history of the kindness received with an appreciation of all that went into it. We must acquiesce and attest to every aspect of gratitude, regardless of how inconsequential it might have been for the benefactor. It is not about him; it is about us.

I recently came across an article about one man's pilgrimage of gratitude: A year-long journey spent thanking people, face to face, who had a major impact on his life. When asked from where he got the idea of spending a year thanking people who had contributed to his life, he replied, "My father passed away when I was a teenager. The idea that life is short, precious and quite unpredictable suddenly hit home. I realized that "time was awasting," and, if I were going to express my feelings of gratitude, I had better do it while I was able - and they were still around."

"Why did you make a whole year-long journey out of what could have been achieved with a phone call?" he was asked. "I wanted the pleasure of being with them in person and to have the benefit of a dialogue. I wanted to convey my feelings personally," he replied.

In his Michtav Mei'Eliyahu, Horav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, zl, explains that true gratitude is derived from the power of nesinah, "giving," while ingratitude is spawned by the power of taking. One who wants to give feels compelled to express his gratitude from his heart. The individual who is a "taker" expresses gratitude at times, but usually it is only lip service. It is not an expression that comes from the inner recesses of his heart. Horav Eliezer Silver, zl, legendary head of the Agudas HaRabbanim, also served as the Rav of Cincinnati, Ohio. When he saw a notice in the paper of the upcoming marriage in Cleveland, Ohio, of Rav Nochum Zev, son of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler, he was intent on participating in the event. Rav Dessler was the nephew of his Rebbe muvhak, primary mentor, Horav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, zl. How could he miss the wedding of his Rebbe's nephew? This was Rav Leizer Silver's understanding of hakoras hatov.

Three years later, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler visited America to see his son and new daughter-in-law, whose wedding he had missed due to World War II. It was not easy for the elder Rav Dessler to travel to the states, but he yearned to see his children.

While he was in Cleveland, Rav Dessler informed his son that he would like to thank Rav Silver for attending his son's wedding. The younger Rav Dessler obtained the phone number and brought it to his father. "No, no," his father immediately said. "I want to express my gratitude in person."

Apparently, there was no room for discussion; the two would be taking a trip to Cincinnati. Together, father and son took the overnight train trip, arriving in Cincinnati in the pre-dawn hours.

They could not expect Rav Silver to be up so early in the morning, so they waited patiently on the Rav's porch until he left for Shacharis. They accompanied him to shul. Following davening, the Rav invited them for breakfast. "What brings you to Cincinnati, and how can I help you?" he asked. The senior Rav Dessler replied that he had come to thank him for attending his son's wedding. "No, really, why did you come?" Rav Silver asked once again. Rav Dessler reiterated that he had come to express his gratitude. "You could have made a simple phone call," Rav Silver countered. "A phone call is not the same as coming in person," Rav Dessler answered. "You took the time and expended the effort to come to my son's wedding. The least I could do is come to thank you personally."

Be attentive and hear, O' Yisrael: This day you have become a people to Hashem, your G-d. (27:9)

Something seems out of place. We are standing forty years after the Revelation, forty years after Klal Yisrael's resounding acceptance of the Torah amid a resonating declaration of Naase v'Nishma, "We will do and we will listen!" Why does the Torah say that hayom - "this day," you became a nation? Had this not occurred forty years earlier? The Talmud Brachos 63b asks this obvious question. Chazal respond that while the Torah had actually been given forty years earlier, it is so valued and appreciated by those who study it, it is as if they had just received it today. In other words, one should approach his daily Torah study as if he is standing at the foot of Har Sinai about to receive the Torah from Hashem. Indeed, every day is a day of Revelation.

I recently saw an analogy to explain the idea behind the word, hayom, "today". The king of a country asked his defense minister to provide him with the figures for supplying the entire military with provisions for a year. The defense minister was an astute businessman, returning a few days later with a detailed spreadsheet, detailing the best prices presented by a particular supplier who was a giving a rock-bottom price in order to get the entire order. The king carefully studied the price list and said that he would soon sign the contract for the purchase order. A few weeks went by, and every time the minister approached the king with the contract, the king demurred. There was always some "reason" for delaying the signing of the contract. Finally, the king called the minister and agreed to sign the contract.

The minister was slightly surprised that it had taken so long for the king to go with this broker. The king was well-known for not wasting his time. When questioned by the minister, the king replied, "You presented me with one price, albeit a very good one, but what about bids from other brokers? As soon as I announce that I am giving the contract to your broker, every wholesaler in the country will clamor that, had they known about my request, they would have come in at a lower price. Therefore, I decided to let the word out and see the results. Once I was satisfied that your broker had it all together with the best prices, I decided to sign the contract."

The same idea applies to Hashem, allowing the nations of the world to submit their bids concerning the Torah. When He offered us the Torah, we replied with a resounding Naase v'Nishma - no questions asked - we are ready and willing to accept the Torah. Nonetheless, Hashem had to give the nations of the world the opportunity to assess the positive commandments, the ethical and moral lessons and values imparted by the Torah. If they were still obstinate enough to continue in their refusal, then it belonged to Klal Yisrael.

Hayom, "this day"! You became a nation. Now, after Moshe Rabbeinu wrote the Torah with full explanation for every nation of the world to understand, they could no longer continue procrastinating. They either would accept it, or would forever hold their peace. They did not - we did. "Today" - it was finally ours. Our bid was accepted.

Cursed is the man who makes a graven or molten image… and sets it up in secret. (27:15)

Hypocrisy is a moral failing, which, upon being added to sinful behavior, makes the act even more repugnant, thus deserving of a curse. The Torah enumerates a group of sins which, as a rule, elude the attention of human courts of justice. These sins, upon which the added curse has been placed, are of a kind that remains covert due to their nature. Horav S.R. Hirsch, zl, observes that the Torah adds the word ba'seisar, in secret, in the beginning and end of the series of curses, to emphasize that it is especially the undisclosed character of these particular offenses which makes them deserving of a curse. Therefore, the curse affects particularly those who practice moral and social abominations beneath the cloak of outward respectability. The hypocrisy added to the actual sin singles out these transgressions for special punitive consideration.

Included in the series of sins is the makeih rei'eihu baseiser, one who strikes down his neighbor in secret. This refers to the baal lashon hora, slanderer, who strikes down his neighbor without the latter being aware of it or knowing from where the blow originates. The slanderer is beyond the reach of human justice, but his foul mouth victimizes people no less. He destroys the happiness, peace of mind and personal dignity of his victim. What is worse is that this offense is habit forming and plays itself out, day and night, without respect for anything. Indeed, lashon hora can even - and often is - spoken within the hallowed sanctuaries of the shul and bais hamedrash.

Rav Hirsch notes that the form of the word used to describe the slanderer is not the verb, which could mean a one-time offense, but rather, makeih, which denotes a "striker," an epithet which would apply to one to whom scandal-mongering has become a way of life, a habit - indeed, part of his character. Thus, the Torah's curse applies, not to the isolated situation in which one loses it and - out of anger - says something inappropriate about his neighbor. No - the Torah refers to the habitual slanderer - the baal lashon hora, the one for whom scandal-mongering and defaming another person's character is for him second nature. Such a person is not cursed by Hashem. In fact, he curses himself. Yes, he is an accursed person.

Va'ani Tefillah

U'Bchol Meodecha - and with all your possessions.

In an alternative exposition, Rashi explains that the word meod is related to middah, measurement. The phrase u'bchol meodecha is now interpreted as, "and with all your measures," meaning that one's love for Hashem should not wane, regardless of what "measure," treatment, we receive. This applies both to what we perceive to be good and bad treatment, generously or poorly.

We must manifest our love for the Almighty in times of joy and in times of pain and misfortune. They are both derived from the same Source. To accept the good without the bad would seem to indicate that either we do not believe they are both from the same Source, or that we disagree with the decision that would cause us to have stress and pain. We do not give orders; we take and accept whatever Hashem gives us, with the belief that this too is good.

Chazal say it very simply: "It is incumbent on a man to bless G-d for the evil in the same way as for the good." Whatever comes from Hashem is inherently good, but, due to our limited physical vision, we are unable to see the bigger picture, to realize that in the great scheme of things what appears bad is truly good.

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