Bikkurim - First Fruits
This is the Dvar Torah I gave to our superb incoming cohort 9 of Diller Teen Fellows this past Thursday evening…
There’s a Hassidic story that beautifully illustrates the way a Jew should be in relation to the world. And I’m going to ask you in the middle of my story to see if you can guess the answer to a question, so be ready…
As you may know, in the Hassidic tradition, the rabbi of the community is called a rebbe and is seen as someone with such wisdom that the rebbe’s followers ask him questions, not only about Judaism, but about all aspects of life.
So one day, a Hasid was offered a job at a bank. In those days, tellers had a choice. They could work at the window where people would come to deposit money into their accounts or they could work at the window where people would come to withdraw money from their accounts.
So the Hasid asked his rebbe— which window should I, as a teller, ask to work at? The one which takes deposits or the one that gives out withdrawals?
The rebbe didn’t hesitate with his answer.
But before I tell you what the rebbe said, let’s have a little fun and see if we can guess which one you think he recommended to his follower—
How many vote for taking deposits?
How many vote for giving out withdrawals?
The actual answer of the rebbe was to take the window where the man would be giving out withdrawals because…
It would habituate him to being a giver, rather than a taker.
And that is also what we hope all Jews understand about life.
And our wise and ancient tradition keeps reinforcing this message in so many ways.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, one of the first things we are commanded as a people, once we enter the land of Israel after our years of wandering in the desert, is to cultivate the land and during the harvest, set aside the first and best of the produce, and then bring it to the Temple in Jerusalem and give it to the Kohanim, the religious leaders of the Jewish people at that time.
And the question is why? Why should I, a farmer who worked very hard to cultivate my land and bring in my harvest, have to schlep to Jerusalem and give some of my best produce to the Kohanim?
The farmer might have thought: It’s MY produce that was grown with MY labor on MY land. And I’m a busy person who doesn’t have time to schlep to Jerusalem. So why do I have to do this?
And the answer is… because it’s not your land. And it’s not only your labor that made that produce grow. And people who think that everything they have is because they are the best or they alone earned it or they alone deserve to have it are either blind or willfully negating the truth.
This world has always been interconnected -- long before Covid, which has illustrated this principle (sadly) very, very well. What you do has impact beyond you and what others do affects you. No person is an island.
Torah is teaching us that we have to acknowledge the land isn’t ours. We have been gifted with this land – just like Native Americans believed about America. We are only caretakers of it, not truly owners.
Ultimately, it is G!D (or if you have G!D problems, then substitute “The Universe”) that has given you the land… or whatever else you think you’ve achieved.
And the climate conditions that watered your soil and provided sun in the right amount during certain seasons and rain in the right amount in other seasons was in no way entirely in your control.
And that’s a metaphor – all that you think is yours, wasn’t earned by you. Most of it was the gift of being born to these parents, at this time in history, in this country -- none of which you controlled.
And the people who helped you by teaching you things you needed to know as a farmer-- your parents and your community-- and who lent you tools and who helped you out when you made a mistake and who gave you love so you would have the energy to continue when the going got tough—all these you didn’t do.
So the Torah teaches — yeah, you have to schlep your tushy up to Jerusalem, whether you want to or not, and you have to go stand at the place which was the heart of the Jewish community, the Temple, and admit out loud — you aren’t the sole owner of your produce, which you might have thought was the work of your hands alone.
There’s a bigger world involved in helping get you where you are now.
And then on top of that admission— you have to give away your precious, hard won produce to those Kohanim as a form of tzedakah, so they have food to eat, since their job is to be religious leaders and they have no time to farm the land.
And when you give that precious produce to the Kohanim, you have to make this big, long statement that appears also in the Passover Haggadah in a part that a lot of people skip (so if you don’t recognize these works then try to remember not to skip it this year so you can bring up this exact teaching that we are talking about right now at your seder table).
Here’s what you have to say at the Temple:
“My forefather was a refugee from Aramea. [The translations usually say: 'a wandering Aramean’ but that’s old school language.] He went down to Egypt with his family [looking for food because there was a famine] and later birthed a great and mighty nation. Then the Egyptians oppressed and enslaved us. God heard our prayers and freed us from slavery and brought us to this land flowing with milk and honey. And that’s why I’m here bringing this basket of produce, which You, O G!D, have given me.”
The Diller Teen Fellows program is designed to teach you Jewish ways of thinking and Jewish ways of being in this world and families believe is an ancient and wonderful wisdom tradition, and so that you contribute actively to the community that sustains these ways of thinking and ways of being in the world so they can continue on eternally.
To be able to take up that great responsibility, you’ll need to be leaders— leaders of yourself, leaders of your friends, leaders eventually of your Jewish community, wherever you choose to build your life in this world.
Leaders are not just the people who run countries or companies – they are everyday people. And the Jewish people have relied on everyday people to be the ones to pass on this tradition from one generation to the next, which is important to do because I believe the entire world is better with Jews and Jewish wisdom in it.
Diller is going to give you skills that will build on the teachings and advice of your parents and your family members so that you can step up and take your place in this ancient chain of transmission and so you remember, even in our very narcissistic South Florida culture, of the importance and satisfaction of being givers, not just takers, in this world.
For more information about the Diller Teen Fellows program, please visit dillermiami.org or contact LindsaySpiegelman@caje-miami.org