“Stretch Those Face Muscles!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, we find the fascinating portion regarding the giving of Bikurim, the season’s first ripened fruits that Jewish farmers brought to the Temple as a gift to G-d.

The Bikurim that are brought to the Temple are specifically of the seven species for which the land of Israel is known: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. Upon inspecting the crops in his field, the farmer would notice that one of these seven species had ripened, and would tie a cord around its stem, declaring it Bikurim.

Jews from all over the land of Israel would converge on Jerusalem with their Bikurim, in festive processions accompanied by music and celebration in city after city. The Mishna, in Bikurim 3, describes how all the people of a particular district would assemble in anticipation of the trip to Jerusalem. The leader would call out, “Koo’moo v’na’a’leh Tzion el bayt Hashem Eh’lo’kay’noo,” come let us go up to Zion, the house of the L-rd, our G-d. A group of flute players would lead the procession, followed by an ox with its horns gilded and crowned with a wreath of olive leaves. The entire entourage would march to the outskirts of Jerusalem.

While waiting to enter the city, the farmers would adorn their baskets with the Bikurim fruit. When the group’s arrival was announced, the Temple officials, the assistants and administrators would go out to meet and welcome the pilgrims. All the workmen and artisans in Jerusalem would stop their work and shout the greeting: “Brothers from such and such a city, peace be onto you!” The pipers continued to lead the procession until they reached the Temple mount. At that point, everyone in the group, even the king himself, would place their baskets on their shoulders and enter the ante-chamber of the Temple. The Levites would begin to sing from Psalm 30, “I will exalt you Oh L-rd, for you have lifted me up, and not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me.” “Mikra bikurim,” the formula for the bringing of the first fruits, would be pronounced once the priest took the Bikurim from the hands of the farmer.

The pilgrims’ recitation included a brief review of Jewish history. Each farmer then declared, “See I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground, which Thou, Oh L-rd has given me.”

When describing the Bikurim ritual, the Torah adjures the people with the following words from Deuteronomy 26:11, “V’sa’mach’tah b’chol ha’tov ah’sher nah’tahn l’chah Hashem Eh’lo’keh’cha oo’l’vay’teh’cha, ah’tah v’ha’Levi v’ha’ger ah’sher b’kir’beh’cha.” And you shall rejoice with all the good which the L-rd G-d has given you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger who is in your midst. Our rabbis teach that it is important that every person, rich or poor, acknowledge G-d’s beneficence.

There are those who contend that the economic crisis that the world is currently experiencing is actually a gift from G-d. After all, for many who prospered during the boom times, things had gotten out of hand. Private homes, intended to house a single family, were often constructed on a scale larger than major institutional complexes. Servants quarters were luxuriously furnished, with decor selected to parallel the extravagance of the primary mansion. Cars became bigger, faster, longer, and the owners of “only” two car garages were looked upon in certain residential areas as impoverished. Friends and family members would vie with each other to determine who could plan a more exotic vacation, at the most remote corners of the earth, or with the most luxurious accommodations.

Suddenly, it seems, in one fell swoop, people lost their entire fortunes. The bubble suddenly burst, and fraud and bad investments were reported daily. Quickly, we learned the cogency of the words found in Psalm 24:1, which say that the “Earth and its fullness belong to the L-rd,” and that money and possessions were truly ephemeral.

In parashat Kee Tavo, we are taught that the people of Israel came together to Jerusalem to donate their Bikurim so they could all, in unison, pronounce their feelings of profound gratitude to G-d. The farmer may plow the land and sow the seed, but if there is no rain or sun, nothing will grow. G-d is surely our partner, and it is necessary to express adequate gratitude to our Partner.

What lesson can we learn from all this? When is a person truly rich? When he or she is able to give of his/her wherewithal to others. That is why the verse says that not just the pilgrim rejoices for all the good that G-d has given him, but it must be done together with the Levite and the stranger, the convert, who is in one’s midst. The Levites are totally dependent for support upon the local community, and the stranger is alone. Those who reach out and give to others in need are the ones who are truly blessed.

The ability to express gratitude is not an easy skill to master. When we realize the great number of conveniences that we have today that free up so many hours that were previously unavailable, it appears rather odd that we, somehow, still fail to express appreciation. We fail to realize how long it would have taken those in previous generations to go from one town to the next by horse and wagon, or for a boat to sail up the river or across the ocean. Today, there is almost no place on earth that cannot be reached within 24-36 hours, and yet we still frequently fail to find the time to express proper gratitude. A Jewish child is born, and we are too busy to attend the Brit Milah, to welcome the child into the covenant of Abraham. We have no time to rejoice with a needy bride or groom at their modest wedding celebration. But we dare not absent ourselves from the extravagant weddings that are celebrated in luxurious chateaus, with full symphony orchestras, featuring the most popular Jewish singers in America.

I have always found it odd that some synagogues today, because of time considerations, do not publicly announce the names of the people who are sick and in need of healing when it comes time to make a me’sheh’berach. Yet, there is always time to recite the names of those who have passed away, when we say the memorial prayer.

It is important to note that the Mishna tells us that the workers of Jerusalem would stop work to welcome the parades of people who would pass. You would think that after the fortieth group had passed, the workers would say to themselves, “We have work to do, enough of this nonsense!”

Sadly, we have lost the ability to appreciate the essence of joy. We no longer know how to feel truly happy. We fail to realize that we Jews are really one big family. When we pass up a Brit Milah or a wedding, we are in essence failing to share in the joy of our cousins, our neighbors, and our friends. A Jewish child reaches the age of mitzvot, how can we not rejoice?!

The Torah tells us, “Va’sa’mach’tah b’chol ha’tov,” Rejoice with all the good! We must not let ourselves become indifferent and lose out on the essence of life. We must learn to share in the happiness of others as if it were our own happiness. We need to smile more, be more upbeat and optimistic, sing out frequently to G-d, for He is good. Stretch those face muscles! We need to reach out to others in need, share the goodness with which we have been blessed. Ignite others with our own inner light.

It’s amazing how basic this lesson is. It is a fundamental of life that the Torah imparts: rejoice, be happy, share your joy with others, the world will be richer for it. Open your heart, and let G-d in. The joy will surely follow.

May you be blessed.