“Not Rushing to Judgment”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, we learn of the Jewish farmer’s obligation to bring Bikurim from the first produce of the field, as a gift to G-d, in acknowledgment of the Al-mighty’s generosity and beneficence.

As we have learned previously (Kee Tavo 5769-2009), Bikurim were given of the seven grains and fruits for which Israel was renowned. When a farmer saw a ripe grain or fruit in the field, he would tie a cord around the stem and declare, “This is Bikurim.” The above-noted Torah message also describes how Bikurim were brought to the Temple with great fanfare.

The Torah declares that Bikurim are placed in a basket and are brought to Jerusalem to be given to the priests. The farmer then announces (Deuteronomy 26:3): “I have come to a land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.”

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 26:4 then states, “V’lah’kach ha’Kohen ha’teh’neh mee’yah’deh’chah, v’hee’nee’cho lif’nay miz’bahch Hashem Eh’loh’heh’cha,” The Kohen shall take the basket from your hand, and lay it before the Altar of the L-rd, your G-d. The farmer then recites a brief history of the Jewish people, regarding the people’s travails in Egypt, and how G-d mercifully brought His people to the land of Israel, a land flowing with milk and honey.

The Mishna in Bikurim 3:8 states, “The wealthy bring their Bikurim in baskets of silver and gold, and the poor bring them in baskets of peeled willow branches, and the branches and the Bikurim are given to the priest.”

The fact that the Torah mentions baskets twice in recalling the mitzvah of Bikurim, and that the Mishna goes into great detail regarding the baskets, indicates that the baskets play a significant role.

The commentators of the Mishna explain that the Bikurim may be brought not only in baskets, but in any type of vessel. They also note that the baskets that are brought are not made of pure gold and silver, but rather, plated gold and silver. In fact, the rabbis state that, in G-d’s eyes, all metal containers are equal to the valued silver and gold-plated baskets mentioned in the Mishna.

The Mishna at first states that the baskets and the Bikurim are given to the priests, indicating that, along with the Bikurim fruits, they are an integral part of the gift. This, however, is not the Mishna’s conclusion. Only the Bikurim fruits themselves are given to the priests to keep, while the expensive baskets are returned to the owners, after the ceremony concludes. The baskets of the poor, however, made of peeled willow branches, are kept by the priests.

The Tosafot Yom Tov explains that the priests keep the baskets of the poor because the amount of Bikurim fruits brought by the poor was very minimal. They become more significant, when their gifts are supplemented with the baskets. The Vilna Gaon explains that the woven baskets themselves and the efforts exerted in preparing the baskets, become a merit for the poor, as if they are part of the Bikurim gift.

These favorable interpretations explain why the poor would hardly be embarrassed to bring their Bikurim in baskets of peeled willow branches. The baskets of the poor, become, in a very real sense, more significant than the gold and silver baskets brought by the wealthy.

It is interesting to note, that when it comes to food baskets that are brought to mourners, gold and silver may not be used, perhaps because they would fall into the category of “Lo’ehg la’rash,” mocking those who cannot fend for themselves–the dead. It may also be that, since there is no mitzvah to bring food in baskets to the mourners, there is no merit to have baskets.

Others suggest that the reason that the Kohen takes the baskets of the poor is to amplify the hope that the poor will be in a position to return the following year with baskets of gold and silver. The wealthy keep their baskets, in the hope that they will have another prosperous year, with much gold and silver.

It is important to note that, at the outset, it seems that the Mishna and Jewish law blatantly discriminate against the poor, even embarrass them. The commentators, however, explain that, not only is the ritual not an embarrassment, it may very well be a source of pride for the poor to bring their Bikurim in willow baskets.

The lessons of the willow basket and the varied ways of looking at the ritual underscore the fact that one should always be circumspect about judging others by appearances. After all, in most instances there are usually, at least, two ways of looking at every situation.

For example, there are Jews who pray extremely rapidly, leading others to conclude that they pray with little kavanah (awareness and sincerity), and simply wish to dispense with the prayers as quickly as possible. Like Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the legendary “defender” of the People of Israel, there are those who come to support those who pray rapidly, by saying that their rapid prayers reflect, not indifference, but an intense love for G-d, to such a degree, that they can hardly wait to pronounce the prayers from between their lips. It may be a stretch, but it is a beautiful and positive way of looking at the situation.

Another challenging scenario that sheds light on the dangers of judging others too quickly is raised by the question of whether one should give directions to a motorist who asks a Jew on Shabbat for directions on how to get to a particular location. There are those who argue that one should either ignore the callous Shabbat violator, or strongly rebuke the driver by stating that he is violating the Shabbat. Others, however, conclude that one should gently tell the driver how to reach his destination. Otherwise, if he stops to ask others who do not know the directions, there will be far more violations of Shabbat if he gets lost, than if he had initially been given the correct and most direct directions to his destination.

The obvious lesson is that clearly one should not be too quick to judge. Always look for a mitigating factor or for a possible justification. Give your neighbor the benefit of the doubt.

Especially in these days of Elul, we should always look for merit for our fellows, as we would have G-d seek merit for us. May we always be the beneficiaries of the gift of both Divine and human mercy.

May you be blessed.