And it will be, when you come into the land which Hashem, your L-rd, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which Hashem, your L-rd, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which Hashem, your L-rd, will choose to have His Name dwell there. (Sefer Devarim 26:1-2)
When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities. (Sefer Devarim 26:12)
The declarations on the first-fruits and tithes
Parshat Ki Tavo continues Moshe’s final address to Bnai Yisrael. The parasha opens with Moshe’s presentation of two mitzvot related to the produce of the land. The first of these is introduced by the first set of passages above. This is the mitzvah of mikre bikurim – the recitation regarding the first-fruits.
What is this recitation? Each year the bikurim – the first-fruits of the harvest – are brought to the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple and presented at the altar. These fruits then become the property of the kohanim – the priests. When the fruits are brought by their owner to the Bait HaMikdash, he is required to make this recitation. He recites a set of passages presented in our parasha. The content of these passages is a short history of our people. It describes our persecution at the hands of Lavan and the Egyptians, and our deliverance by Hashem. The passages then thank Hashem for bringing us to the Land of Israel and for the land’s fertility and richness.
The second mitzvah presented in the parasha is vedoi ma’asrot – the confession over the tithes. This commandment is introduced by the second quotation above. In this declaration one states that he has distributed and properly observed the laws regarding all of the tithes of one’s crops. He then asks Hashem to respond by blessing His people and the Land of Israel. The required tithes differ somewhat from year to year. They are arranged in a three-year cycle. This vedoi declaration is recited only when the cycle of tithes is completed. Therefore, it is recited only after the completion of each three-year cycle.
These two commandments – mikre bikurim and vedoi ma’asrot – have many similarities. Both are verbal declarations. Both are related to the tithes or offerings that we are obligated to apportion from our crops. In both we address Hashem. Therefore, both declarations are ideally recited at the Bait HaMikdash. However, despite their similarities, these two mitzvot differ in many significant details.
“Look down from Your holy dwelling, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel, and the ground which You have given to us, as You swore to our forefathers a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Sefer Devarim 26:15)“And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, Hashem, have given to me.” Then, you shall lay it before Hashem, your L-rd, and prostrate yourself before Hashem, your L-rd. (Sefer Devarim 26:10)
The participation of the convert in mikre bikurim and vedoi ma’asrot
One of the most remarkable differences between these two commandments is their treatment of converts. The mitzvah of vedoi ma’asrot does not apply to converts. In the first passage above, taken from the vedoi, one describes the land of Israel as “the land (ground) which You have given to us.” The convert cannot truthfully include himself among those to whom the land was given. This is because the right of a convert to own acreage in the land of Israel is sharply circumscribed.
The Land of Israel was originally divided among those who descended from the forefathers and participated in its capture. The land was given to them as a legacy. This means that although an owner can sell a portion of his land, it remains his legacy. Every fifty years – at the Jubilee year – the land is redistributed back to these legacy owners or to their descendants. The convert can purchase acreage in the Land of Israel, but he does not become a legacy owner. At the Jubilee the plot is restored to its legacy owner. In short, the ownership of the convert is limited and not a legacy. The land was not given to the convert.
Remarkably, the mitzvah of mikre bikurim applies to converts. In other words, a convert who purchases acreage in the Land of Israel and produces crops is required to bring his first-fruits to the Bait HaMikdash and to recite mikre bikurim. The inclusion of the convert seems odd. The second passage above is taken from the declaration of mikre bikurim. The Land of Israel is described as the “the land (ground) which You, Hashem, have given to me." How can he declare that it is “the land which, You, Hashem, have given to me”? The convert does not have a legacy ownership in the land?
Maimonides responds that our forefather Avraham is identified by Hashem as the father of all those who enter under the wings of the Divine Presence. This includes those who elect to join the Jewish people. The land was promised to Avraham and his children. The convert is not the biological descendent of Avraham but in every sense is his spiritual heir. He can describe the Land of Israel as “the land that Hashem gave to me.”
In short, the convert is regarded as a descendant of Avraham. This relationship suffices to include him in the commandment of mikre bikurim. He can truthfully describe himself as included among those to whom the land was given. Yet, his spiritual descent from Avraham does not suffice to include him in the mitzvah of vedoi ma’asrot. In this instance, this relationship does not include him among those to whom the land was given!
The choicest of the first-fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of Hashem, your L-rd. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk. (Sefer Shemot 23:19)The choicest of the first of your soil you shall bring to the house of Hashem, your L-rd. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk. (Sefer Shemot 34:26)
The message of mikre bikurim
The first step to resolving this problem is to recognize that identical statements can have different meanings in different contexts. Both in mirkre bikurim and vedoi ma’asrot the Land of Israel is described as given by Hashem to me or to us. However, in the case of mikre bikurim this phrase means that the land was given by Hashem to the nation of Israel that is descendant of Avraham. The convert, through his election, is a member of the nation to which Hashem gave the land. However, in the case of vedoi ma’asrot, the phrase has a different meaning. It is not describing the land as given by Hashem to the Jewish nation but as given to the legacy owners who have permanent rights of possession. The convert is not among this group.
The next step is to understand how the two contexts determine the meaning of these nearly identical phrases. Why does the phrase have different meanings in its different contexts? This requires a clearer understanding of the two declarations. Let us begin by reconsidering mikre bikurim.
The above passages describe the obligation to bring the first-fruits to the Bait HaMikdash. The context of the passages is important and provides an essential insight into the commandment. In both instances, the preceding passages describe the pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In these passages, the festivals are described as harvest celebrations. Pesach corresponds with the beginning of the harvest season and Sukkot is observed at its conclusion. We are then commanded to bring the first-fruits.
A single theme unites these passages. The observance of these harvest festivals and the offering of the first-fruits are intended to focus our attention upon the source of our bounty. We are to recognize that it has come from Hashem and through our observance of these commandments we give our thanks. The first-fruits that we bring to the altar in the Bait HaMikdash are our thanksgiving offering to Hashem for the bounty He has given to us.,
The mitzvah of mikre bikurim takes place in conjunction with the presentation of the first-fruits. However, its major focus is not upon these fruits. It expresses our gratitude to Hashem for His benevolence toward our forefathers and ancestors. It culminates with thanking Hashem for the Land of Israel. In other words, the fruits are treated as only the catalyst that moves us to acknowledge Hashem’s many expressions of benevolence and that He has given us the Land of Israel. This message of thanksgiving is relevant to the convert. The convert is included in the nation that is the object of Hashem’s benevolence and has received the Land of Israel. It follows that in this context, the convert can truthfully describe the land as “the land which, You, Hashem, have given to me.”
The message of vedoi ma’asrot
What is the message of vedoi ma’asrot? This not a message of thanksgiving. Instead, the message contains two basic components. It begins with a declaration that one has given all of the tithes and observed the laws in their regard. In the second portion, one asks that Hashem respond to one’s observance of these commandments. He should bless His nation and the land that He has given to us. In short, vedoi ma’asrot is a request for Hashem to bless Bnai Yisrael and the land in response to our observance of the laws regarding its produce.
Why does the observance of these commandments secure for us the right to expect Hashem’s blessings? It seems that as a group the various tithes demonstrate our appreciation of Hashem’s ultimate ownership of the land. When we observe these commandments we acknowledge that the land and its bounty are Hashem’s and He is directing us to perform these commandments with its produce in exchange for our right to enjoy it. With vedoi ma’asrot we declare that we recognize that Hashem is the true owner of the land and recognize that Hashem blesses the land in response to our acknowledgment of His ownership. In short, we can only ask for Hashem’s blessing of the land if we are prepared to recognize that it is His and not ours.
This understanding of vedoi ma’asrot impacts the meaning of its description of the land as “the land that You gave to us.” We are recognizing that the land is our only by virtue of Hashem’s will. We are owners by virtue of His benevolence and at His discretion.
Now that we understand the meaning of this phrase in its context, let’s return to the exclusion of converts from the mitzvah of vedoi ma’asrot. The tithes and this declaration are designed to remind us of Hashem’s ownership of the land and the limits of our own possession. This lesson is relevant to those to whom Hashem has specifically given the land. These are the descendants of the forefathers who have a legacy ownership in the land. The convert does not have this ownership. Any possession that he may secure is temporary and his land reverts to its true owner at the Jubilee.
Two important messages are communicated by these mitzvot
Our exploration of the treatment of the convert in these two mitzvot has directed our attention to their two important messages. The first message – communicated by mikre bikurim – is that we enjoy a very special relationship with Hashem. He rescued our forefathers and our ancestors from those who would have destroyed them. He gave us the Land of Israel and our possession of the land is a further expression of His benevolence. The second message is that the land is not absolutely ours. We are Hashem’s tenants and we possess the land in exchange for our recognition of His ownership. Only through this recognition can we expect His blessings to be bestowed upon our people and land.
Feeling the presence of Hashem
Finally, these messages can be reduced to an even more basic set of fundamental and related concepts. One of the most basic tenets of the Torah is that Hashem is the source of all of the blessings we enjoy. We endeavor to secure our wellbeing, but He determines whether these endeavors will succeed or fail. Without this tenet, Hashem is a distant and irrelevant presence. But if we can master this tenet, then we can experience the presence of Hashem in our lives.
How do we achieve this awareness? Very often we strive to achieve this awareness by identifying occurrences in our lives that we can interpret as miraculous interventions. These perceived interventions provide us with a sense that Hashem is present in our lives. The Torah suggests that one does not need to identify personal miracles in order to feel the presence of Hashem. Instead, the two declarations in our parasha respond to this challenge.
First, we must acknowledge and express our appreciation for the blessings we experience every day. The benedictions that we make when we rise in the morning or before and after eating are examples of the means provided to us to recall Hashem’s benevolence. We need merely to consider our words to enjoy the benefit of these reminders.
Second, we must recognize our dependency upon Hashem though petitioning Him for His blessings and striving to deserve them. Our daily prayers are reminders of our dependency. Many of our mitzvot – for example, the mitzvot of tzedakah and welcoming guests to our homes – are also effective reminders of Hashem’s ownership of the universe in which He has granted us a tenancy. When we perform these commandments and consider their meaning we nurture a closeness with Hashem.