Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

Being ungrateful destroyed Adam’s life, and it can destroy our lives as well. We have to learn to appreciate all that we have and to thank God for whatever He sends our way.

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8), which begins with the mitzvah (Torah commandment) of bringing the Bikkurim, the First Fruits, to the Holy Temple and reciting the required biblical passages associated with the ritual. The farmer would come from wherever he lived in Israel with his first fruits, give them to the Kohen, the Temple priest, and then recite a passage that tells the story of all the kindnesses that God has performed for the Jewish people.

As the Torah says, “And the Kohen will take the vessel from your hand and leave it before the altar of the Lord your God.” There would be a great procession and festivities when the First Fruits were offered.

This mitzvah of the first fruits is said to be the prototype commandment of the Torah in terms of expressing gratitude. There are many lessons of gratitude we can learn from this mitzvah, and we have shared various interpretations in the past. In this column, we will look at the Midrashic (rabbinic literature) interpretation.

In Hebrew, the First Fruits are known as the Reishit Bikkurim, which is essentially an exact translation of “First Fruits.” The Midrash notes that the Torah begins with virtually the same word! Genesis 1:1 says “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” The Hebrew word for “Beginning” is B’reishit. Commenting on this first word of the Torah, the Midrash says: “There are three things that have the word “Reishit” in them: The Jewish people, the Torah and the First Fruits, and the world was created for these three things.

Can you imagine? From the entire Torah, from all the commandments, the mitzvah of First Fruits is considered to hold the credit for why the world was created! The commentators explain that this is quite reasonable, because the mitzvah of the First Fruits symbolizes gratitude, which is a fundamental idea in Judaism and a character trait that helps the world function.

The Midrash also teaches that God disdains those who are ungrateful, and refuses to “live with them.” In fact, the reason that Adam was exiled from the Garden of Eden was because he was ungrateful. Adam actually sinned a double sin. Had he only sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit, he may have been able to remain in the Garden of Eden. However, his second, concurrent sin was a lack of gratitude. When God asked him why he ate from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam simply responded, “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it. [It’s all her fault!]” As the famous commentator Rashi notes, this demonstrated Adam’s lack of gratitude. He was ungrateful that God gave him the best wife in the world (literally).

The Midrash equates the sin of ingratitude with denial of God. Being ungrateful destroyed Adam’s life, and it can destroy our lives as well. We have to learn to appreciate all that we have and to thank God for whatever He sends our way. Some farmers had beautiful First Fruits, other farmers had shriveled, poor-looking First Fruits. Nevertheless, everyone joined together in Jerusalem to thank God for whatever they were given. Such should be our attitude as well.

For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.