|This week’s Parsha opens with the mitzvah to bring the first fruits (bikurim) to Jerusalem. (Practically speaking, because we no longer have the Temple, we can no longer fulfill this mitzvah.) Back in the day, the bringing of the bikurim was done with grandeur. A procession of people 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, as stated in the verse you shall take some of the first fruit…put it in a basket and go to the place where…G-d will choose to establish His name” (ibid. 26:2). The Mishna notes that wealthy people would bring their fruit in baskets made of gold and silver whereas the poor folk would make baskets woven of palm leaves or straw. There was an unusual practice regarding these baskets. Each person would present the fruit basket to the Kohanim (“priests”) and they would keep the baskets that the poor people made, along with the fruits, whereas for the wealthy, they kept only the fruit but returned the baskets. The Talmud observes that “the poor got poorer.”
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 the poor people, who couldn’t afford a fancy basket, should not be embarrassed. (Part of the process of bringing the first fruits was the declaration of a statement in Hebrew. There was a rule that the Kohen would recite the statement word for word so as not to embarrass people who did not know Hebrew. A similar rule could have been instituted regarding the baskets.)
The Midrash says that the poor people’s baskets were an asset for them. What does the Midrash mean; what asset could there possibly be? Malbim (1809-1879) explains that the poor people would make their baskets by hand whereas the rich people would simply purchase their ornate holders. The fact that they put their time and effort into making their baskets, showed 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 because their baskets never attained a level of holiness worthy of the Beit HaMikdash (Temple).
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 the Kohen kept their basket, it was a demonstration that the baskets were worthy of becoming used in the Temple and a validation of the fact that this was the ideal way to bring the bikurim, first fruits.
This lesson is applicable for us in personal relationships and in our lives as Jews. In the case of the first fruits, it’s easier to buy a basket but if it’s handmade, it’s more precious due to the labor of love one 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 creatively.
This idea applies in a major way in our personal relationships. 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? Which tzedakah (charity) would you consider more precious, a $1000 donation by billionaire or $100 by someone of modest means but 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 get down in the dumps because someone is smarter than you and has an easier time in school and work, or any other quality or asset that someone possess, 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 (obviously, as long as it’s not harmful to you). For some it’s tzedakah(charity), for others it’s the ability to listen or call 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.
(Sources: Bikurim 3:3, 8; Bava Kamma 92a; Bikurim 3:7; Malbim commentary to Sifri)
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