The Existential Message of the Bikkurim
by Rabbi Kenneth Brander
With the rainy winter behind them and the summer harvest ahead, Jewish farmers in the time of the Beit Hamikdash would celebrate the year’s bounty by offering Bikkurim, their first fruits of the Shiv’at Haminim (the seven species), to Hashem. They would festively carry their produce to Yerushalayim and ceremonially present them to the Kohanim. At this sacred, joyous moment, the farmer would recite a prayer, one of the few tefillot written into the Torah, recalling the history of the Jewish people tracing back to our earliest ancestors:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב…
Arami Oved Avi, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there in a small group, and he became there a great, multitudinous, populous nation… (Devarim 26:5)
The meaning of the opening phrase, “Arami Oved Avi” is ambiguous and much discussed. The Avi, forefather mentioned here is identified with Yaakov Avinu,
Some of the traditional commentators consider ‘oved’ a verb: ‘an Aramean wished to destroy my forefather.’ This interpretation, adopted by Rashi, Saadya Gaon and the Maharal, has the verse referring to Lavan’s attempts to stymie the development of the Jewish people already at its inception. It is recalled by Jewish farmers living centuries later in order to celebrate the immortality of the Jewish people; despite the attempts of all those who have tried to destroy us, from Lavan to Pharaoh and all those who would follow, we give thanks to Hashem for our people’s providential continuity, ensured by the stability of living in our own land and fulfilling our destiny in part through its sustenance.
Yet there is an alternate interpretation, suggested by Ibn Ezra and others, that ‘oved’ is an adjective meaning wandering or nomadic; rendering the opening phrase as ‘my forefather was a wandering Aramean.” According to this reading, the backdrop of the farmer’s recounting of the servitude in Egypt is Yaakov’s experience of wandering. The instability of Yaakov’s home, riddled with family strife among his children, becomes the direct cause for the descent to Egypt at the end of Sefer Bereishit, paving the way for the Jewish people’s subjugation under Pharaoh’s rule. As the farmer recites these words over the bikkurim-basket, what comes to mind is not an image of our enemies from afar, but rather of our own familial conflicts and communal points of tension. Distrust, breakdowns in communication, resentment towards our fellow Jews – these are the sins which led to the first ever exile to Egypt, the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash and its long exile, which perpetuate our continued exile experience.
Bikkurim, the personal/national celebration of the bounty of the land, is a celebration of the unity of the Jewish people, and a reminder that our relationship with the land is contingent upon maintaining that unity. It is for this reason that the Mishna (Bikkurim 3:3) describes the leadership and citizens of Jerusalem warmly greeting the Bikkurim-pilgrims as an essential part of the mitzvah itself. Hashem has brought us from being a “wandering Aramean” to the promised land of Israel in order for us to live in harmony; to love and respect every Jew – a challenge we still face today and a foundational goal that we must strive towards achieving.
The recitation of this paragraph at a time of agricultural plenty and affluence comes to remind us that our respect for the other is a necessary condition for our physical affluence and for our safety and security in the land as well as the foundational goal necessary in achieving our purpose: to serve as a light unto the nations. As we celebrate Tu B’Shevat this year, let us both rejoice in the goodness of the land of Israel that we can once again enjoy, and accept the responsibility for strengthening the bonds among all Jews, including those who may differ from us, so we may merit Hashem’s blessings this and every year.