The Eternal Lesson of Bikkurim
‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’
In my formative years the words of the Declaration of Independence were firmly etched in my heart. Its philosophies helped shape my attitudes while validating the dreams and aspirations of a generation. Being considered a citizen of the USA encouraged children to stand tall with pride, albeit with a tinge of smugness and arrogance. It made little difference if one attended a public or parochial school. The values taught were imbued with reverence and gratitude for all our country had done for us. With hand firmly affixed to our chest, our daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance bestowed upon my peers a sense of dignity and self-respect. Conversely, it gave us a keen awareness of the continuous threats to our freedoms by hostile regimes around the world.
Although we were confident of our country’s military superiority, we were taught to abhor violence. Although we were assured that our power and strength would deter our enemies, we also hoped the world would embrace democracy and be transformed from foe to friend. In the post-Holocaust era in which I was born, social and ethnic disparities were a part of life. But in our immature naiveté, we enjoyed a harmonious, albeit fictional, coexistence.
What went wrong? What happened to the innocence of my youth? I am done hearing that “Black Lives Matter” and wonder why “All Lives Shouldn’t Matter.” I am disgusted when I see police murdered in cold blood with nary an uproar or protest from upstanding citizens. I am troubled by pundits and politicians who support the Iran nuclear deal, and alarmed that our world has already forgotten the demagogues that existed just a few generations ago. Although I respect the rights of community rabbis’ to disagree, I was blind sighted by some influential clergy publicly extolling the virtues of the Iran deal while excoriating groups that find the deal an existential threat to the State of Israel. I am disturbed that today’s demagogues are thriving due to an inexplicable political collusion between terrorist regimes and western democracies. I sometimes feel that our country and leaders have lost focus. It seems we take great care not to offend the perpetrators of evil while we are impervious to our responsibility to defend those we are mandated to protect.
Juxtaposing the final verses in last week’s Torah portion and the beginning verses of this week’s portion are ideas that our founding fathers may have used as a basis for the Declaration of Independence. Last week we concluded with the commandment to remember and never forget what Amalek did. It obligated mankind to be fully cognizant of their adversaries and to realize that appeasement isn’t a policy, it’s a weakness that often serves only to encourage our enemies. As brutal and politically incorrect as war may be, all civilized countries must constitutionally mandate the protection of its citizens. That responsibility ultimately lies in the hands of all able bodied citizens and is not assignable, even to a divine entity. Although we should appreciate that “God gave this land to thee”, it didn’t come with a lifetime guarantee.
Yet in reading the opening words of this weeks’ Torah portion, the sentiment offers the reader a unique insight for society’s survival and self-preservation. It states: V’hayah ki tavo el ha’aretz asher hashem elokecha noten l’chah nachalah – when you enter the land (Israel) that hashem will give to you as an eternal inheritance we are obligated with the mitzvah of bikkurim. An essential component in bringing the first of the new fruits is to publicly proclaim: Arami oved avi vayered Mitzraimah – an Aramean destroyed my father, and he went down to Egypt and dwelled there with few in number. The Egyptian made our life a misery …. And we cried out to God. He heard our cries and gave us the land of Israel. Behold I have now brought the first of the fruit …..And you shall rejoice in all the good that God gave to you …..
The proclamation describes how best to confront our gravest concerns and difficulties. It goes through a step by step process outlining our individual and communal responsibility. It intentionally omits any mention of Abraham, Isaac or Moses, and recounts a relatively insignificant chapter of our history, the story of Laban. It describes a period in our history when we were outnumbered and outgunned; he had the wherewithal and the motivation to squash our very existence. It highlights the initial stage of our nation’s development when we overcame the temptation to be labeled as victims and instead confronted our adversaries. Our circumstances continued in its downward spiral, eventually leading us into slavery. The bleak future of an infant nation hinged on tough choices made by tough people. Had we succumbed to the path of least resistance then our nation would have long ago ceased to exist. Thus we proclaim that we never have and never will accept being labeled as victims.
Equally essential in nation building is a twist on how we usually understand the phrase: all men are created equal. By focusing on our ancestors we are exposing ourselves to the uncomfortable reality that our past is laden with the most heinous of characters. Laban, our patriarchal in-law, was a notorious outlaw and Amalek, our cousin, was the personification of evil. Notwithstanding the desire to hide the truth, we are told to proclaim and confront this reality of life. It is only when we are open and acknowledge from whom we descended can we feel comfortable with the realization that we are actually all birds from the same feather.
The public proclamation also includes a comprehension that gratitude and self-reliance are interconnected. During the public recital we express gratitude to He who gave us our freedom and the State of Israel. We acknowledge that there is a component of our existence that we don’t control. We realize that but for the grace of God we would have no land and no ability to produce any fruit. Yet it also shows that reliance on God alone may be counterproductive. He may have given us an eternal inheritance but he did so conditionally. He said there will come a time when enemies will arise and you will be charged with defending your people. This birthright and legacy comes with a responsibility that we safeguard and protect our inheritance for future generations.
When I awaken to the news of another police ambush, school shooting, or movie theater disaster, I realize the lessons of the Bikkurim have been lost on its intended audience. As a society we have failed to appreciate that we have all been victimized but we should never be willing to accept the role of victim. We should be cognizant to the fact that regardless of our ethnic diversity we all have our fair share of collective baggage. There is no shame in having a past; shame exists only when we permit our past to dictate our future. What happened to the sanctity for life that was taken for granted in my youth? The value of life is directly proportional to the value given in protecting it. By the world leaders’ unwillingness to confront that the personification of Amalek has once again reared it evil head; its tentacles wreaking havoc on the four corners of the globe, it diminishes the sanctity of life. Our inalienable rights of life and liberty must transcend political correctness. And perhaps if we manage to overcome our temptation and heed the underlying message of the Bikkurim, then indeed we can also aspire to achieve life’s ultimate goal: modifying our dream from pursuing happiness to embracing a New Year with the hope of actually attaining it.
Rabbi Jack Engel