The Mishna paints a colourful picture of the farmers’ procession to the Temple as they brought the bikkurim, their first fruits of the harvest. They did not arrive one by one in Jerusalem; rather, they would go up in a group, accompanied by music and a whole entourage to mark the occasion. At the head of the procession, there was a bull decorated in gold. And all the residents of Jerusalem – the shopkeepers and all the workers, sometimes even the king – would come out to greet the farmers’ arrival. Upon arriving at the Temple, the Levi’im would sing a song from the book of Tehillim. (Mishna, Bikkurim 3:3-4)
Then, on dedicating their baskets of produce to the Temple, the farmer would make a declaration summarising Jewish history, and expressing gratitude to G-d for bringing the Jewish people to the Land of Israel – to the sacred ground from which these first fruits were harvested. (Devarim 26:3-10)
Why all the fanfare? What is so special about the mitzvah of bikkurim that it warranted such a declaration and such a grand, beautiful ceremony? And how is any of this connected to Yom Haatzmaut, which we celebrate this week?
Yom Haatzmaut happens in the weeks leading up to Shavuot – the time of the harvest during which we celebrate the great bounty of the land of Israel, and when the mitzvah of bikkurim was performed. Interestingly, bikkurim can teach us how to approach Yom Haatzmaut.
The Malbim explains that the declaration on the bikkurim was stated as a response to those who would challenge our right to the Land of Israel. The Malbim (on Devarim 26:5) cites Rashi’s very first comment on the Chumash – the question of why the Torah begins with the book of Bereishit, the more narrative-driven portions of the Torah, when really the Torah is a book of commandments. (Rashi, Bereishit 1:1)
Quoting from a remarkably prescient Midrash (Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni on Torah 187), Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins with the story of creation is because one day “the nations of the world” would accuse the Jewish people of unjustly appropriating the Land of Israel, to which we can respond – G-d, the Creator of the world, gave it to us. That is our title deed. And we underline this claim by publicly declaring and celebrating our connection to the Land of Israel in the bikkurim ceremony.
There’s certainly a lesson we can draw here in our own age about proudly and unapologetically celebrating our connection to the Land of Israel. Yom Haatzmaut is a special time to do so, and remind ourselves of the justice of the cause of the State of Israel.
The mitzvah of bikkurim has another, no less important, lesson for us for Yom Haatzmaut – the lesson of gratitude. Through the declaration, the farmers express gratitude for the fact that G-d took us out of Egypt and brought us to the land of milk and honey – and these are the first fruits of the land. In this way, the entire farming experience becomes grounded in a deep appreciation.
Gratitude is at the heart of our Jewish identity. The word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehudi”, which comes from the name “Yehuda”, who was Leah’s fourth son. When she gave birth to Yehuda, she said: “I will give thanks to G-d”. (Bereishit, 29:35) As Jews, we know that everything we have, every blessing we enjoy, comes from Hashem. And the way we show our gratitude is by dedicating the best and the first to G-d – through the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben, of redeeming a firstborn son; through the mitzvah of giving our firstborn kosher animals to the Kohen, which are then offered up in the Temple; and through the mitzvah of bikkurim.
We also learn the lesson of gratitude from the mitzvah of Birkat HaMazon – the blessings recited after a meal that includes bread. The source of this mitzvah is the verse in Devarim (8:10), which states: “When you eat and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord your G-d.” It is interesting that the physical satisfaction from the meal is a crucial element of this mitzvah. In fact, the Talmud (Berachot 20b) points out that the verse (“when you eat and are satisfied”) implies that the Torah duty to recite Birkat HaMazon only applies when a person is properly satiated. In other words, Birkat HaMazon teaches us that from satisfaction we need to move to gratitude – recognising and thanking G-d as the source of all our blessings.
And so, as we mark Yom Haatzmaut this year, as we look back with satisfaction on all of the immense achievements of the last 73 years, our hearts are filled with gratitude and appreciation to G-d for His blessings that have made it all possible.
David ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, is famous for having said: “In Israel, in order to be a realist, you must believe in miracles.” G-d’s miracles have accompanied the birth, growth and development of the State of Israel throughout these 73 years. From the great military victories and economic and technological achievements, to the miraculous rebuilding of yeshivot and Torah learning on a grand scale beyond the wildest dreams of those who saw the destruction of these institutions in the Holocaust – the Jewish People have established, with G-d’s blessings, a thriving state in spite of all odds. Israel has, with Divine help, continuously defied the natural order of things.
This Yom Haatzmaut, as we once again declare our historic connection to the land and celebrate all that our beloved State of Israel has miraculously accomplished, let us do so with both deep gratitude and unabashed pride – and through this, let us unleash abundant Divine blessings for many more years of greatness.