Be Happy!

And you should rejoice in all the good that Hashem, your L-rd, has given you and your household – you and the Levi, and the convert who is among you.  (Sefer Devarim 26:11)

I. Presenting the First-Fruit

Parshat Ki Tavo discusses the Bikkurim – the first fruits.  The Torah commands us to bring the first fruits of the harvest in the Land of Israel to the Bait HaMikdash – the Sacred Temple – and to present them to the Kohen.  Although this mitzvah has been previously described in the Torah (Sefer Shemot 23:19), our parasha adds an element.  When presenting the Bikkurim, the farmer recites a series of verses expressing thanksgiving.  These verses retell the history of our people – our bondage in Egypt, our redemption, and our possession of the Land of Israel.  The verses conclude describing the presentation of the Bikkurim as an act of recognition of Hashem’s benevolence.

The above passage immediately follows the instructions for presenting the Bikkurim and for the recital of the verses.  Moshe tells the people that they are to rejoice in recognition of the blessings that Hashem has bestowed upon us.

II. Rejoicing in Bringing the First-Fruit

How does the obligation to rejoice when bringing the Bikkurim express itself?  Those bringing the Bikkurim are required to also offer a Shelamim sacrifice.[1]  A Shelamim sacrifice is unique. A portion is placed on the altar, a portion is given to the Kohen, but most of the sacrifice remains the owner’s.  He shares the meat of the sacrifice with his family and others.  This is one expression of rejoicing.

The presentation of the Bikkurim is accompanied by singing psalms of praise.  This is another expression of rejoicing.  When the procession of those bringing the Bikkurim reaches the courtyard of the Bait HaMikdash the Leviyim begin to sing psalms of praise.[2]  However, even before reaching the courtyard, the Bikkurim are accompanied by rejoicing.  They are brought into Yerushalayim in a celebratory procession.  The residents of the city come into the streets to greet the pilgrims.  When the procession reaches the gates of Yerushalayim, the pilgrims begin to recite a psalm of praise.  When they arrive at the Temple mount, they take-up a new psalm which they recite until arriving at the courtyard of the Bait HaMikdash.[3]

III.  Bikkurim are Unique

Bikkurim are presented in the Bait HaMikdash to the KohenBikkurim is one of a number of gifts or tithes we are required to present to the Kohen.  These include Terumah which is a portion of the harvest, and Challah which is a portion of every substantial bread dough.  These other gifts are not accompanied by an obligation to rejoice.  This obligation is unique to Bikkurim.  Why does Bikkurim require rejoicing?

The requirement of rejoicing reflects a fundamental distinction between Bikkurim and the other gifts and tithes given to the Kohen.  The tribe of Levi, which is the tribe of the Kohanim – the priests – did not receive a portion of the Land of Israel.  Instead, they were awarded cities in which to live.  They were not given lands to cultivate and from which to support themselves.  The nation is obligated to support the members of the tribe – including the Kohanim.  This support is provided, in part, by Bikkurim and other gifts and tithes.

Bikkurim contributes to sustaining the Kohanim.  However, it is also a thanksgiving offering.  Thanksgiving requires rejoicing.  The message of Bikkurim is that thanksgiving is incomplete if it is not accompanied by rejoicing.  Why is this?

IV. Acknowledgement Brings Rejoicing

The answer lies in the two different ways in which the rejoicing accompanying the Bikkurim is expressed.  It is expressed through offering and consuming a Shelamim sacrifice.  Consumption of the sacrifice provides direct gratification.  This gratification is a form of rejoicing.  Bikkurim are accompanied by psalms of praise.  Reciting praise does not provide gratification.  Instead, it nurtures or reinforces awareness of one’s blessings and their source.  This awareness evokes joy.

Why is joy an essential element of Bikkurim?  The presentation of Bikkurim is an event.  Its theme is thanksgiving.  The psalms recited elaborate on the theme.  Through presenting the Bikkurim we acknowledge the blessings that Hashem has bestowed upon us.  Joy is the natural expression of this awareness.  If joy is absent, then the awareness has not been fully achieved.

V. Blessings and Happiness

This discussion explains an interesting comment of Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shur.  He suggests that the above passage has a double meaning.  We are obligated to rejoice with the presenting of the Bikkurim.  However, the passage has another meaning:

“And you will rejoice – in the merit of this [mitzvah] the Omnipresent One will grant you joy.”[4] 

According to Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shur, the reward for bringing the Bikkurim and acknowledging Hashem’s benevolence is that Hashem will grant us joy and happiness.

This is a very odd interpretation.  How can Hashem grant us happiness and joy?  He can bestow His blessings upon us.  But whether we will respond with appreciation, acknowledge our blessings, and achieve joy is in our hands.  Happiness cannot be granted or coerced.

Apparently, Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shur is explaining that if we fully engage in the presentation of the Bikkurim, we sincerely acknowledge Hashem’s blessings and His benevolence, then the blessings He will bestow upon us will bring us joy and happiness.  Hashem does not grant us happiness.  But if we properly prepare ourselves, His blessings will bring us happiness.

VI. Opening One’s Heart to Happiness

This is a subtle and astute point.  Joy is not achieved simply because one has cause to be happy.  One must open one’s heart to joy. Two people with similar lives can have very different attitudes.  One is grateful for his or her blessings and is happy.  The other does not appreciate the blessings and instead, is troubled by the unfulfilled wishes and aspirations.  How does one achieve joy?

One lesson of Bikkurim, according to Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shur, is that we achieve joy through developing our sense of appreciation.  The more developed our capacity to appreciate our blessings, the more joy we experience in life.  When we acknowledge and sincerely appreciate Hashem’s blessings, they become a source of happiness and a cause for rejoicing.

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 3:12.

[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 3:13.

[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Bikkurim 4:16-17.

[4] Rabbeinu Yosef Bechor Shur, Commentary on Sefer Devarim 26:11.