I will be traveling across the country by train for the first time in three years to attend the bar Mitzvah of my nephew. I intend to post some updates – a travelogue – of my journey along the way. I will be travelling, after this event, to visit my mother who will not be attending, because of a serious heart condition. If you feel inspired to contribute a few dollars for my travelling expenses, I would greatly appreciate your contribution.
The commandment of bikkurim (first fruits) was to be performed after B’nei Yisrael entered Eretz Canaan and received their inheritance. It was only incumbent upon them to observe the mitzvah of bikurim, after they were established in the land. It was to serve as a constant reminder of our heritage. The declaration that is made at the time, encapsulates our history, beginning with Jacob, who went to Egypt with his entire family. And, how we later became slaves in Egypt; yet, H’Shem redeemed us, and we became His people, bound by covenant to the Torah given at Sinai.
The declaration, made when bringing the basket of the first fruits of one’s harvest to the Kohein, concerns our history, how we began as a small people, and became populous, and were brought into “a land that flows with milk and honey” (Deuteronomy 26:9). It is an expression of gratitude to H’Shem for our redemption, and a reminder of our humble origins as a people. Also, the import of this declaration brings to light all of the provisions bestowed upon us since that time.
A stark reminder that G-d provides, and has done so since Gan Eden. Yet, today, society is so far removed from the harmony in the Garden before Adam and Chava partook from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Today, good and evil are being redefined by man, if not essentially reversed. The prophet Jeremiah warned of this: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that change darkness into light, and light into darkness; that change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter” (Jeremiah 5:20, JPS).
That direct personal relationship of Adam and Chava (Eve), has for the most part within secular society been replaced with a connection to “everything under the sun.” Mankind seeks to become the ultimate arbiter good and evil, proclaiming truth relative, by way of subjectivism. In an immoral world, let us stand up for our values, as given by the Creator. Our heritage, as preserved through the declaration of bikkurim, and other traditions, provides us with a foundation as a people. Even if the world’s foundations crumble, let us hold on to ours.
The bikurim (first fruits) were brought to Yerushalayim, between Shavuot and Sukkot, the harvest season. The seven species from which they were selected were wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, grapes, and dates. Today, these grains and fruits serve to remind us of our connection to the Land of Israel. We may enjoy these foods, especially at certain times, according to tradition, in the same spirit that B’nei Yisrael was called upon to rejoice in Yerushalayim, when they brought the bikurim.
At Kadesh-Barnea, Moses explained to B’nei Yisrael that they had alighted upon the land that “our L-RD is giving to us” (Deuteronomy 1:20, JPS 1985 Tanach). At that time, they were commanded to take possession of the land promised to them. Moses said to them, “Fear not and be not dismayed” (1:21).
Moses recounts this narrative, thirty-nine years later, when the Children of Israel are poised on the edge of the Promised Land. He further explains to this new generation, how the generation of the spies, unfortunately, preferred to reconnoiter the land, rather than fully trusting in H’Shem to lead the way into the Promised Land.
This was a lack of faith on their part, and although Moses permitted them to send spies (see Deuteronomy 1:23), as H’Shem had left the choice up to him, the mission turned out for the worse.
Moses reminds the people, for the sake of admonishing them for their past failure, with the intent that they will see the error of their ways, and strengthen their trust in H’Shem this time. “I said to you, ‘Have no dread or fear of them. None other than the L-RD, who goes before you, will fight for you, just as He did for you in Egypt before your very eyes’” (Deuteronomy 1:30-31).
Similarly, to learn from our past failures in life is to gain an understanding based upon lived experience. In this manner, our errors may instruct and encourage us to do better, if we take them to heart, as steppingstones, along the way towards perfection of our faith. “The L-RD will accomplish that which concerneth me; Thy mercy, O L-RD, endureth for ever; forsake not the work of Thine own hands” (Psalm 138:8, JPS 1917 Tanach).
“‘We came unto the land where thou didst send us, and truly it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.'” – Numbers 13:27
“H’Shem spoke unto Moshe, saying: ‘Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan’” (Numbers 13:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach). Yet, this does not give the complete details, as later revealed in Torah. In Deuteronomy, it is written, “Behold, H’Shem thy G-d hath set the land before thee; go up, take possession, as H’Shem, the G-d of thy fathers, hath spoken unto thee; fear not, neither be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 1:21, JPS).
These are words of encouragement; however, the people responded with caution, requesting of Moshe, “Let us send men before us, that they may search the land” (Deuteronomy 1:22, JPS). This is the prior conversation between Moshe and the people, before the opening words of the parashas, where H’Shem literally says, “if you would like to send men, send men for yourself.” In other words, H’Shem left the decision to Moshe, whether to grant the request of the people to send out spies into the land of Canaan.
So, proof of the goodness of the fruits of the land was brought back to the people; however, ten of the spies also brought an ill report of the land. They said, “howbeit the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great” (Deuteronomy 13:28, JPS). Rather than trust in H’Shem, that he would be their strength, the spies searched out the land in order to prepare a military strategy; yet, in their own estimation they saw themselves as “grasshoppers,” compared to the local inhabitants of the land (13:33).
The ten spies lacked self-esteem, as well as emunah (faith), they did not fully trust in H’Shem to bring them into the land. They saw a lack in their own abilities, not realizing that their strength was in H’Shem. When we put our trust in H’Shem, set our concerns aside, and acknowledge that our reliance on Him will bring our best intentions to fruition, in accordance with His will, then we can expect good results.
note to readers:
If you appreciate the content at the Tree of Life, please consider “buying me a cup of tea” for $3.00. Otherwise, $5.00 will buy me a challah; and, $10.00 will buy me a bottle of wine for religious purposes on the Sabbath.
“Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work.”
– Exodus 25:18, JPS 1985 Tanach
The keruvim (angels) were made out of gold, that had been hammered out from the ark cover, all from one piece of gold. This may symbolize the harmony between the Shechinah (G-d’s Presence) that rested between the keruvim on the ark-cover, and His angels. “Upon the firmament that was over the head of the cherubim, there appeared above them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne” (Ezekiel 10:1, JPS 1917 Tanach). Additionally, from the perspective of the sefirotic tree of life, one wonders whether the unity may have to do with keter, chochmah, and binah. Inasmuch that I am not nearly as cognizant of the Jewish mystical treatise, the Zohar, as I would like to be, this is only a speculation on my part.
In any case, these golden keruvim (angels) are a topic of fascination for the sages, if it is feasible to judge their interest with keruvim based on the extended commentary found in certain Jewish sources. For example, R’Bachya comments that one reason for the golden cherubim being constructed as part of the ark-cover, is to remind of the existence of G-d’s angels, whom He created to enact miracles on earth. They may serve as a bridge between the heavenly realms, and the earthly realm, where they carry out the missions given to them by H’Shem. Additionally, “we are required to believe in the existence of angels” (R’ Bachya, commentary on Exodus 25:18, as found at sefaria.org).
“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” – Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach
“If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land. – R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org
The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.
Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists within the framework of that person’s practical existence.
At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. Yet, the “proofs” of the existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our own lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith), specifically, requires a profound degree of awareness.
“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.” – Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach
The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, the handmaid was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The Midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.
“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine and he was the kohein (priest) of El (G-d) the Most High.” – Genesis 14:18
“Five possessions did the Holy Blessed One, set aside as his own in this world, and these are they: The Torah, one possession; Heaven and earth, another possession; Abraham, another possession; Israel, another possession; The Temple, another possession.” – Avos 6:9, sefaria.org
“G-d acquired these five possessions to serve as the instruments by means of which He can bestow His kindness and generosity on man, to let him rise to the lofty position of comprehending His greatness.” – Akeidat Yitzchak, sefaria.org
A tenth of all that Abraham retrieved from the five kings was given to Melchizedek; the remainder was considered properly tithed from the perspective of a later Torah injunction; yet, Abraham kept none of this, for his reward has to do with heaven and earth. Therefore, what has any man to offer Abraham? The King of Sodom’s riches would have been devoid of any spiritual blessing, since they would not have been bestowed upon Abraham by G-d; but, rather by man.
While it is true that blessings can be given to someone through men, according to G-d’s design, this would not have been the case, in regard to the loot that was recovered by Abraham, when rescued his nephew Lot, who was captured by the five kings. Why? Because Abraham was righteous, and “disdained profit gained through oppression” (Akeidas Yitzchak; sefaria.org). That is to say, that he forsook the wealth that was rightly his according to custom in order to maintain his integrity.
Every now and then, we may find ourselves in a similar position, not necessarily having to do with possessions; rather, as pertaining to a challenge designed to test the integrity of our convictions. Our belief and practice, as well as the strength of our convictions must be tested, so that we are able to permit these to take root in actuality. The tests designed for Abraham, throughout the narrative of his life, as recorded in Torah, may also be understood this way.
“The L-RD trieth the righteous.” – Psalms 11:5, JPS 1917 Tanach
“The land the L-RD, our G-d, is giving us is good.” – Deuteronomy 1:25
G-d had previously said, that the land was good, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Sifrei emphasizes that both Joshua and Caleb asserted that the land was good, even after seeing the land for themselves, despite the ill report of the ten other spies. Their perspective was positive, while the others had a negative perspective; yet, the words of the malcontent “descend into the inmost parts” (Proverbs 18:8), in this case, influencing the people in an adverse manner.
Even to the extent that they claimed that the L-RD hated them, saying that He brought them out of Egypt to die at the hands of their enemies (Deuteronomy 1:27). Fear, as well as their own hatred towards G-d (see Sifrei) compelled them to project their own hatred onto Him, as if they were the hated ones. As if G-d’s design from the beginning was to permit them to be exterminated?
A lack of judgment engulfed them because of the cloudiness of their minds. In Egypt, the Nile allowed for an irrigation system that would distribute the water for farming. Yet, in the land of Canaan, where the Israelites were being brought, only through natural means, by rainfall, allotted to the land by G-d Himself, would their survival depend (Numbers Rabbah 17). Yet, they trusted in the security provided for them in Egypt, and disparaged trusting in the L-RD to provide for them.
Isn’t this like modern man, with all of his comforts, as per the result of civilization, buttressed by the foundation of the industrial revolution, and its counterpart, the age of technology? To consider for ourselves, how much this may be the case, we may ask whether we would be willing to give up our material comforts for a two week camping trip.
Yet, the children of Israel went on “a camping trip” for forty years. During this time, the L-RD provided for them, beyond any means that Egypt could have provided. And if we were faced with the prospect of becoming “enslaved” by technology, would we be willing to leave everything behind us, for the sake of our freedom? Is our emunah (faith) in the L-RD strong enough, that our subsequent trust in His provision for us would foster resiliency in the face of adversity?
“Blessed is the man that trusteth in the L-RD, and whose trust the L-RD is.”