Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bikkurim and Happiness

by Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

Parshas Ki Savo begins with the mitzvah of bikkurim. Through this mitzvah and the rich symbolism of the rituals surrounding it, we are taught how to achieve happiness.

After months of toiling in his field and orchard, a Jew takes the first fruits of his harvest and sets off for Yerushalayim. When he arrives there, he meets up with a kohein and then approaches the mizbei’ach in the Bais Hamikdosh and liturgically recalls the trials Yaakov Avinu endured, followed by our forefathers’ suffering in Mitzrayim.

He then relates how Hashem rescued us with scores of miracles and led us to the Promised Land that flows with milk and honey.

Following that climactic event, the Jew presents the first fruits of his labors and returns home. He is then ready for the next part of the mitzvah - “Vesomachta bechol hatov,” the obligation to rejoice “with all the goodness Hashem, your G-d, has given you and your household.”

The obligation to be thankful for the blessings Hashem has bestowed upon us - and to contrast that goodness with the difficult time that preceded it - appears to be the key to true happiness.

The road to happiness and fulfillment is often strewn with hardship. A Jew whose livelihood comes from working the fields is a perfect illustration of how this dynamic works.

First, he must spend countless hours toiling under the blistering sun and in the freezing cold. And then, when he finally has some fruit ready to harvest and eat or sell, he is commanded to take it to Yerushalayim as bikkurim.

The Torah instructs him to think back to the bitter days Yaakov spent at the home of his father-in-law, Lavan, and to the period of slavery our ancestors endured in Egypt.

Perhaps it is only by approaching our situation in life with this perspective that we merit happiness. Perhaps part of the reason for the mitzvah of bikkurim is to force man to reflect on the good in his life. Too often, people concentrate on the negative; they complain about all the heartache they endure as they struggle to make a living. People fail to thank Hashem that they have a job and that they have a boss who guarantees them a salary. People don’t always appreciate that they have a plot of land on which to grow their fruit.

Bikkurim forces one to mentally revisit the first days of the planting season when he planted one of his shiva minim, not knowing whether the seeds would take root, or whether the trees would bear fruit. And it forces him to be thankful that, despite all the potential for ruin, in the end, Hashem helped him bring forth a good crop.

In Yerushalayim, he stands at the mizbei’ach and reflects on the mixture of hard times and good times the Jewish people have experienced throughout the ages.

As we approach Rosh Hashanah and examine our actions over the past year, we, too, must weigh the bad with the good, examining our lives with a spiritual yardstick to measure how far we’ve come in the course of time. Instead of growing despondent over all the mistakes we’ve made, we should be thankful that Hashem has given us this Elul period of reflection during which we can rectify those errors.

All of us face challenges in life. There are times when we feel as if we are backed into a corner with no means of escape. Sometimes we feel as if a conspiracy of lies has spread an impenetrable web. There are times when it appears as if all the odds are stacked against a righteous person, and conventional wisdom seems to indicate it’s time to give up the fight.

The tendency to despair is understandable. But not every story ends in tears; there actually are some with happy endings.

The courage to keep up the struggle is the theme of Elul. As we reflect on how much we are lacking and on the many areas which can use improvement, we may start feeling useless. We may decide we are so far gone that it is impossible for us to straighten ourselves out in time.

We need to maintain our faith as we go through this internal turbulence. Hakadosh Boruch Hu says to us, “Pischu li pesach kefishcho shel machat, va’ani eftach lochem kefischo shel ulam.” We have to open the door, we have to plant the seed, we have to take that trip to Yerushalayim, and G-d will do the rest.

As we review this past year, we are sure to find some actions that we can point to with pride. We are reminded that there is some good inherent in us. We need not give up; we must recognize that there is room for hope.

If we teach ourselves to take our responsibilities to Hashem and our fellow man more seriously, we really can succeed in the year to come.

From time to time, we are privileged to witness an example of a noble-minded person who refuses to be cowed by opposition and overcomes the difficulties he faces. Faith, hope and conviction won’t let him surrender, even with the urge to cut the losses and capitulate.

That person’s triumphs inspire the rest of us not to falter in our service of Hashem, not to bend nor comprise as long as we follow the dictates of the Torah and halacha.

Living in troubled, beleaguered times, we have to maintain our faith and seek to persevere and do good, no matter how difficult the challenge.

In this season of introspection and retrospection, we should internalize the message of the bikkurim. As we review our failings and the unfortunate occurrences which have befallen us, we must take note and appreciate the good as well. One sure way to merit the blessings of happiness is to recognize the nisyonos we have been able to overcome and the siyata diShmaya that helped us to do so.

We have to continue to constantly scrutinize our actions, always aiming to improve. We have to remember the arami oveid avi and the avdus in Mitzrayim in order to absorb Hakadosh Boruch Hu’s mercy and kindness in accepting our prayers and rescuing us from those awful situations.

Just as he saved our fathers, he looks out for us and aids us in our daily battles and struggles if we remain staunch in our faith and do not allow setbacks to derail us.

Bearing this in mind will enable us to make a true kabbolah al ha’asid and be zoche to vesomachta bechol hatov.

What can we do to merit Divine intervention, deliverance from the clutches of evil, and the ultimate redemption?

This week’s parsha provides the answer. The Torah states (28:1) that if we will adhere to all the mitzvos we were commanded by Hashem and follow His word, we will merit to be ascendant over all the other nations.

It is interesting to note that this posuk is preceded by the one which states, “Arur asher lo yokim es divrei haTorah hazos - Cursed shall be the one who does not uphold [raise] the Torah.”

The Ramban brings the Yerushalmi in Sotah (7:4) that this curse is referring to people who are in a position to influence others to come closer to Torah and to support Torah and fail to do so. Anyone who shirks his responsibility is included in this arur. Even if the person is a complete tzaddik in everything he does, if he could have drawn others closer to the holiness and truth of Torah but doesn't, he is cursed.

The Chofetz Chaim would repeat this Ramban and strengthen its message by quoting the Gemara in Shabbos (54) that one who has the ability to protest against the wrongful actions of the people of his town and doesn't do so gets caught up in their sins. One who reproaches his fellows and brings them to the right path, thereby strengthening kevod Shomayim, is showered with the brachos mentioned in this week’s parsha that were delivered on Har Gerizim.

The Chofetz Chaim would make the point that there is no better bracha than that. Thus, everyone should use whatever abilities they have to help build Torah. If Hashem blessed someone with money, he should use it to build yeshivos for the study of Torah. If he is blessed with oratory skills, he should use them to raise money for yeshivos and other Torah causes. He should speak out against practices that cause a weakening of our religion.

As the Yom Hadin approaches, we all seek sources of merit and bracha to be zoche in din and be inscribed in the book of tzaddikim. The Ramban informs us that it is not sufficient to be a tzaddik gomur; we must also use our faculties to help strengthen and spread Torah.

As the world spins out of control and our eternal enemies gird themselves with weapons capable of causing colossal damage, we realize that there is no one we can depend on to protect us other than Hashem. We seek sources of merit for ourselves and to be included with those the posuk calls “boruch, the blessed ones.”

We require extra bracha to vanquish the ever-present ruach shtus and remove us from falling, G-d forbid, into the clutches of those who are arur.

We are all blessed with different strengths and abilities which we must use for worthwhile purposes. Hashem made each of us differently for a reason and that is because it takes the varied capabilities of a group of individuals to build a community and strengthen a nation.

Let us all follow the admonition of the Chofetz Chaim and use our kochos to their full potential to increase the study and support of Torah. Let us find more time to learn, and seek worthy causes to support with increased generosity and wholeheartedness. Let us inspire others to do the same. Let us use the power of speech to spread lashon tov and not lashon hara. And let us also seek to do away with some of the evil which pervades our world.

Let us be ever vigilant in our behavior, remaining loyal to the Shulchan Aruch and to what we know is true and proper. Let us maintain the strength of character and purpose necessary to remain upstanding in a tipsy world.

May these activities bring us abundant merit in the final weeks before Rosh Hashanah so that we earn the blessing of a year of success, good health, parnassa, nachas and peace.


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