Ki Tavo: Be Happy!

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If You're Happy and You Know It
03 Sep 2009

One senses something incredibly deep going on in bikkurim, a seemingly simple mitzvah of delivering the first produce of the seven species up to Yerushalayim to the kohen. It is a mitzvah whose protocol greatly transcends its content. Consider the following mishnaic snapshot of the 2nd temple annual bikkurim parade:

How were the bikkurim taken up [to Jerusalem]? All [the inhabitants of] the cities .. gathered together and spent the night in the open place .. early in the morning the officer said: ‘let us arise and go up to Zion, into the house of the lord our god’.. Those who lived near brought fresh figs and grapes, but those from a distance brought dried figs and raisins. An ox with horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head led the way. The flute was played before them .. when they arrived close to Jerusalem they ornamentally arrayed their bikkurim .. the governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] went out to meet them .. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would greet them:‘brethren, men of such and such a place, we are delighted to welcome you’.. when they reached the temple mount even king Agrippa would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the temple court. At the approach to the court, the levites would sing the song: ‘i will extol thee, o lord, for thou hast raised me up, and hast not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me’.. The rich brought their bikkurim in baskets overlaid with silver or gold, whilst the poor used wicker-baskets of peeled willow-branches

Not bad for a little olive, a bit of fig, a shtick raisin and a piece of pomegranate. Almost sounds a bit Hungarian. So why all this commotion?

Now consider a few more unique halachic details:

  1. The residents of Jerusalem would take off work
  2. The bikkurim bringer would declare a summary of Jewish history – something unique to any korban or gift in the mikdash
  3. There was no minimum amount of bikkurim – even the smallest amount suffices [not unique] – but there was also no maximum amount – one could declare their whole field bikkurim [yes unique]

and a few Rabbinic statements regarding our mitzvah:

  1. Do this mitzvah, for in its merit, you will enter the land [Sifri]
  2. In the merit of bikkurim, the world was created [Bereishis, Rabah, 1:6]
  3. In the merit of two things [..bikkurim], Yisrael can plead before Hashem [Midrash Tanchuma, Re’eh]

Simply put: Bikkurim is a big deal. It stature dwarfs a simple tithe or even terumah. Within its portals, our commentaries find critical themes of

  1. Faith/Gratitude – Hashem, even as it feels like I did all the work, You, Hashem, are the source of my success [Sefer HaChinuch]. I thank You for the fruit in particular and the land in general [Alshich] – for the land is Yours [Abarbanel] and it is only appropriate that I “pay back” a bit [Chizkuni]
  2. Reflection – Personal and national. This fruit represents the culmination of much hard work. That it comes from Eretz Yisrael is the fulfillment of the Divine promise and our national dream. [Chizkuni]
  3. Sacrifice – Human nature greatly craves firsts. [first smile, first shoes, first dollar made in business] We are attached to firsts. Give what you greatly value to Hashem.

A final halacha captivates me: [Rambam, Bikkurim, 3:5]

[Halachically], eating Bikkurim is like eating terumah. Bikkurim is stricter in that it is forbidden to the onein[the one who lost a relative that has not yet been buried]

Why is this so? Because bikkurim requires simcha [joy] – a statement that is borne out by the end of the bikkurim section:

You shall rejoice with all the good that Ad-noy, your G-d, gave you and your household; you, the levi, and the proselyte in your midst.

One might have been tempted to say that the Torah is either urging us to be happy or describing the natural state of affairs of the bikkurim bringer. The fact that this verse serves as a source1 prohibiting the onein from eating bikkurim indicates that it is not merely a suggestion; it is the law! The Torah strikingly declares: Be Happy! Form and action will not suffice. The striking nature of this requirement becomes all the more curious given that simcha obligation resides in but a few places in the Torah2 – leaving us to ponder the unique relationship between simcha and bikkurim.

Before we try to figure it out, one must note the remarkable symmetry in our parsha. The Talmud points out that we read Ki Tavo the Shabbos before the last Shabbos of the year – in order to rid the year of its curses, a theme that occupies the greater part of our parsha. We want to enter the new year on a high note.

In detailing those terrible punishments, the Torah makes a brief and penetrating comment:[Devarim,28:45-47]

All these curses shall come upon you and will chase you and reach you until you are destroyed; for you have not obeyed Ad-noy, your G-d, to guard His commandments and His statutes that He commanded you… because you did not serve Ad-noy, your G-d, with joy and goodheartedness, from your bounty.

Our parsha begins with the simcha imperative and concludes by spelling out the consequence of a simcha-less existence!

It is these last troubling verses which the mind instinctively protests:

  1. Is that really true? – Must one be happy when performing every mitzvah? Does one have to eat maror b’simcha? What about the mitzvah of mourning or punishing the sinners. Surely, simcha is not a halacha in every mitzvah.
  2. More to the point, is it fair? One who does every mitzvah without simcha should be the recipient of such terrible consequences. Barring the few aforementioned instances, we do not even find a mitzvah of simcha in the Torah?

Perhaps it is not happiness per se that is the point. Indeed there is no requirement that every mitzvah be done with happiness. It is the mindset that is the key to the pasuk – for happiness is a litmus test and a choice. If indeed no one can have it all [except for the other guy]; the question then becomes -what dominates my frame of reference? What I have or what I don’t have?

To the extent that I find simcha in what I have, be it a figele or a shtick barley, davka at the beginning of the yield, then I will be develop the simcha trait in everything that comes my way. Bikkurim – the mitzvah, is celebrated with pomp and circumstance for it is precisely in the small that the Torah seeks to hammer home the message that it’s all a gift. More to the point the Torah reminds us to be happy in all that Hashem gives you – for within that gift is the most precious relationship possible.

Concurrently, to those who feel entitled (kumtzach mir), the Torah, in the terrifying tochacha, resoundingly reminds us the root of all sin, not a particular act begins with an emptiness, an unhappiness. It is as if the Torah warns:

If you can not be happy with what you have already, then who says when you get more, you will yet reach the promised land of contentment. Do you want to know why you have veered away – why you were looking for love and joy in all the wrong places? – it is because you were not able to find it at home.

In short, to gain happiness one must choose it. Like all important things in life, it is an avodah, a midah to be acquired – not a particular amount of money.

As we walk into Rosh Hashana, let us ponder all the good that is already in our life: the good of family, the good of health, the good of life .. and the good of being able to connect to the source of all truth through His mitzvos.

With great bracha for a wonderful new year,

Good Shabbos, Asher Brander


1 Cf Pesachim 36b. Rashi here based on R. Shimon [who says that a kohen onein may eat bikkurim] uses this pasuk to teach that the bikkurim must be brought during the time of simcha, i.e. from Shavuous until Pesach. Chachamim however say that an Onen may not eat bikkurim. It could be that the Chachamim’s source is a comparison to ma’aser sheini. Cf. Rabbeinu Bechayei who explicitly derives from our pasuk the source that an onein may not eat bikkurim.

2 One is with regard to the 1st year of marriage, v’simach et ishto. The other with regard to the mitzvah of being happy on the regalim

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.