| In ancient times, Jews would bring their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. A procession would come with their fruits, led by musicians and oxen adorned with gold. The craftsmen of Jerusalem would stop working in order to greet this grand procession. The fruits were brought in baskets; wealthy people would use baskets of gold and silver whereas the poor folk would make baskets woven from palm leaves or straw. The gold and silver baskets were returned to their owners, but the woven leaf or straw remained in the Temple along with the fruits.
The obvious question is, why not give the poor people back their baskets? Furthermore, why wasn’t there a rule that there should be a uniform basket made of palm leaves, brought by rich and poor, so that people who couldn’t afford fancy baskets would not be embarrassed?
The Midrash says that the poor people’s baskets were an asset for them. Malbim (1809-1879) explains that the poor people would make their baskets by hand whereas the rich people would simply purchase theirs. The time and effort into making their baskets demonstrated how precious the mitzvah was to them. This elevated the basket to the level of a holy object, and as such it would be kept for use in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple). Wealthy people didn’t invest themselves as much in the mitzvah and therefore their baskets were returned to them.
The reason there was no need for a uniform basket to be brought by rich and poor alike was because the poor people were not embarrassed of their handmade baskets—to the contrary, they were proud of them. When their baskets were kept, it was a demonstration that the baskets were worthy of becoming used in the Temple and an endorsement that this was the ideal way to bring the bikurim, first fruits.
There’s a wonderful life lesson here. Even though a basket of gold or silver was more opulent, it was easier to buy one than to make one. When I work on something, it’s more precious due to the labor of love invested in it. When a family works hard getting ready for Passover, it has inestimable value. The cleaning, getting rid of the chometz (bread), and taking out the special Passover dishes, shows how important the upcoming holiday is for them. Some people spend hours every day painting tiny wooden or metal soldiers, others build their own table. If these people needed little soldiers or a table they could buy them, but they want something more—they identify with these objects, which are concrete expressions of their creativity.
What would be worth more to you, a sweater purchased at a boutique, or one made for you by someone who loves you? A home-cooked meal vs. take-out? Returning from college and being picked up at the airport by your parents or limo? Which tzedakah (charity) is more meaningful, a $1000 donation by a billionaire or $100 by someone of modest means who struggled to give it because he or she believes in the cause?How much money, intelligence, or physical strength we possess is not something we can control but we do have the choice of what to do with the gifts and resources we have. The next time you feel sad or discouraged because someone is smarter than you and has an easier time in school or at work, or any other quality or asset that someone else possesses, take a moment to reframe and think about the lesson of the first fruits. Your greatest asset is not what you possess, but what you can give. For some it’s tzedakah (charity), for others it’s the ability to listen or calling someone who is alone, others have the ability to mentor—all of us have something to give. It’s easy to focus on what we don’t have but that only brings us down. The antidote is to think of what you do have—and give it away. Good Shabbos