Cash, Tomatoes and Mirrors (Parshat Ki Tavo)

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As an exercise in the education of our city-born children, we recently tried a special project with them. Although I groan when I hear people listening to programs like Gardener’s Question Time, and although flowers and plants in our home tend to wither and die very quickly, we thought it would be edifying for our little ones to see that fruits and vegetables do not grow in supermarkets. To this end we set about growing our own tomatoes from a hanging basket, and coaxed our kids to water it regularly, and to make sure it got enough sunlight. Despite a brief panic as we realised we would be away for a fortnight and unable to tend it during that time, nevertheless our project is working well and the plant is now laden with rows of blushing cherry tomatoes, almost ready for eating.

What is fascinating to me about this whole saga is that it has managed to bring home to me very strongly a message in this week’s parsha. We read this week about the mitzva of the First Fruits (Bikkurim) and the detailed instructions the farmers were given for this commandment. At the first sign of a fruit (from the 7 species) appearing on the branch the farmer was to tie a ribbon around it and later, when fully ripened, those very fruits would be taken to the Temple in Jerusalem and given to a Kohen.

What is the reason for this elaborate ritual of tying a ribbon and marking the first fruit? What difference does it make to G-d which fruit is brought to the Beit HaMikdash, the first or the last?

The answer given is a logical one; this mitzva teaches us in a tangible manner that what we own does not really belong to us. Despite the feelings of ownership a farmer has towards his harvest; despite the joy he feels when the fruit ripens on time, nevertheless the first fruits go to the House of G-d, the Beit HaMikdash. Yes, the farmer has invested time, effort, sweat and tears in producing this fine harvest, but the first fruits belong to G-d. Not only the first fruits … from every crop a percentage is also given to the Kohanim, then ten percent to the Levites, and then in certain years, ten percent to the poor.

The message is clear. Yes you worked hard for this – but don’t forget who stands behind the scenes: G-d. And whatever He grants you, part of it belongs to Kohen, part to the Levite and part to the poor.

This was something that came to mind this week as I looked at the fruits our kids have put effort into growing, and realising that they will fight over who gets to eat the first one to ripen! This is only a tiny representation of what it means to a farmer who has put everything he has into working the land, ploughing, sowing, weeding, watering and pruning. Finally after months of effort the fruits begin to ripen. The greatest temptation at that point must be for the farmer to sample the first fruits of his labour – but the Torah says no. The very first fruits must go to G-d, in recognition that without His blessing nothing would grow at all.

And this does not apply only to food, it applies to money too. Despite the fact that we work hard for what we earn, and we feel it is ours to spend as we please – the Torah teaches us differently. The Jewish perspective on charity is that any money we have in our possession is there only on trust – for us to act as responsible trustees. Part of the money we earn is technically not ours – it is simply deposited with us to return to its rightful owners. The needy man or woman to whom we give that money is actually the real owner of the money – but G-d wanted a system where some have and some do not, and the former help the latter. So the first thing we do when receiving our salary, or making a profitable business deal – is to give ten percent to G-d – to charity.

Money can do strange things to people. If you take a pane of window glass and coat one side with silver you create a mirror. Through the window you can see others, including those who are less fortunate and need help – but in a mirror you only see yourself.

From the mitzva of Bikkurim in this parsha we learn a powerful message: All that we possess is only thanks to the blessings of the Almighty, and not solely to our efforts. Also, that when we do have, we must share with others and not allow the “silver” to block our view of those outside.

As we stand now in the month of  Elul it is an especially auspicious time to give charity generously, so that on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgement, G-d will be generous with us too.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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