“Respect for the Person and the Office”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the opening chapter of this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, we read about the ritual of Bikurim — the gift of the first harvested fruits that was brought by the farmers to Jerusalem and presented to G-d via the Kohanim, the Priests.

In Deuteronomy 8:8, we learn that there are a total of seven species of grains and fruits for which the land of Israel is known: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. It is from these seven species that Bikurim are brought. The Mishnah in Bikurim 3:1 relates that when a farmer saw the first ripened fig or any of the seven species, he would tie a cord to its stem and declare, “This is Bikurim!Jews from all over converged on Jerusalem with their Bikurim, which were presented to the Temple in ornate and joyous processions, accompanied by music and jubilant celebrations.

The farmer who brings the Bikurim delivers them to the Kohen and recites a declaration that includes a brief synopsis of Jewish history, underscoring G-d’s role in bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Ultimately, the farmer presents his basket of first fruits to the Priest as a gift to the Temple.

The Torah text goes into considerable detail regarding the Bikurim ritual. After instructing that the first fruits be placed in a basket, the Torah relates (Deuteronomy 26:2) that the farmers are to go to the place where G-d chooses to make His name dwell. Deuteronomy 26:3 then states: “Oo’va’ta el ha’Cohen ah’sher yee’yeh ba’yah’meem ha’haym,” You shall come to the Kohen who will be in those days, and you shall say to him, “I declare today to the Lord, your G-d, that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.” The rabbis are perplexed by the seemingly extraneous phrase that describes the Priest as the one “who will be in those days.” Of course, the Priest to whom the farmer goes will be a contemporary Priest, certainly not a Priest of any other day!

A number of explanations are suggested by the commentators to account for this unusual phraseology. The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) states that this unlikely description of the Priest comes to teach us that a farmer may not bring his own local Kohen from his place of residence to perform the Bikurim ceremony, but rather must deliver the basket of fruits to the Priest who is presently on duty in the Temple, serving in the Priestly rotation at that time (There were 24 Priestly rotations). The Me’am Loez (an extensive Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17th-18th century), citing Talmudic sources and ancient commentaries, notes that the phrase comes to underscore that as long as the farmer gives the gift to a Priest who is considered worthy and valid at that time, the gift is considered valid, even if the Priest becomes disqualified later.

Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) cites the Sifri, which explains that the additional words “who shall be in those days” come to teach that, as long as the Priest is a valid Cohen, one may not say about him how much better the Priests were “in the good old days.”

Hirsch goes on to explain that as long as the Priest is “kosher” and faithful to the rules of the Torah, “the fact that the Priests of any contemporary time are not up to the standard of previous times, should not deter us from going to them with our first fruit as commanded.”

Hirsch further notes that the review of Jewish history found in the Bikurim declaration allows each Jew to return “vicariously” to previous generations where he, in effect, encounters the original Priests, who officiated at the presentation of the people’s first fruits in ancient times.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) offers a brutally honest interpretation of the biblical words, “the Priest who shall be in those days.” He maintains that the extra words come to teach that it is necessary to treat the Priest respectfully, even if he’s not very learned. After all, he still is the Priest! The Priest, no matter what his qualities, is G-d’s representative. On the other hand, you [the farmer] are like a lowly sharecropper at the mercy of the land owner.

What, pray tell, could these Torah verses possibly have to teach us today? Most people suffer from nostalgia. How often are references made to the “good old days,” even though, in many respects, referring to the past as the “good old days” is totally inappropriate. Consider, if you will, an issue which many of us face at this very moment. Because of the failed attempt of terrorists from Great Britain to blow up American planes using liquid explosives, airports all over the world have summarily prohibited bringing any liquids or gels aboard commercial airline flights as personal carry-on items. Travelers the world over vociferously complain about the inconvenience of having to fly without their toothpaste, lens solution, and deodorant. Put that into perspective with the “good old days” when it would take three months of tortuous and dangerous travel by sea to get from London to the United States, and the inconveniences of today truly pale in comparison. Yet, travelers continue to complain about not having toiletries!

The Torah tells us that the Priests of today have to be treated with the same respect as the Priests of old. And even though they may not be equal in intelligence or effectiveness to the old Priests, as long as they are qualified, they must be treated with respect. In effect, the Torah tells us to focus on the important things that need to be done, and to quit whining about the “good old days.”

Furthermore, the Torah teaches another profound message. Not only is the “person” to be respected, the “office,” meaning the Priesthood, must be respected as well.

Of course, it is important to underscore the crucial caveat that the Priest must be respected, young or old, swift or slow, only if he is a truly qualified Priest.

In America today, we live with the consequences of the reality that the highest office of the land, the presidency, is treated with wanton disrespect. All too frequently, articles are published in the finest journals and newspapers in which the president and the presidency are ridiculed and degraded, making it very difficult for our national leadership to be effective.

Although there are obviously many people who are dissatisfied with the conduct of the war in Iraq and with the leadership of President Bush, the demeaning of the office of the president did not start with President Bush. It might have been Bill Clinton’s unseemly personal behavior or perhaps Richard Nixon’s resignation under threat of impeachment that is most responsible for the loss of public respect for the office of president. The fact that there are many people who are unhappy with President Bush’s policies today is only amplified because the office of the presidency has been so undermined and weakened. A major question that lies ahead for the Republic of America is whether any future president, no matter how talented or wise, will be able to properly govern our country because of the loss of respect for the office.

Our Torah teaches that, just as we must show respect to the Kohen of our day, even if he is inferior to his predecessor, so too must we show respect to our contemporary spiritual leaders. Our memories of the great men of yesteryear must not allow us to give short shrift to today’s leaders. Similarly, if we truly hope to keep America strong, its citizens need to restore the sense of respect for the office of the presidency, even if today’s leader fail to measure up to the great leaders of the past. Of course, all this assumes that the contemporary leaders live up to the expected minimal standards of behavior and are faithful to the rules of our government.

This is the ancient message that resonates so powerfully in contemporary times. If we are wise, we will learn the message well and heed it faithfully.

May you be blessed.