Rabbi Dr. Michael Bernstein
Every year, when the first fruits appeared, the landowner would bring them to the Temple in Jerusalem and make a special declaration (26:1-10). “And it will be when you enter the land that God your Lord gives you as an inheritance . . . then you shall take of the first of every fruit of the earth that you bring forth from your land that God your Lord gives you . . . Then you shall call out and say before God your Lord, ‘An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather [Jacob]. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, strong and numerous . . . and now behold I have brought the first fruits of the ground You have given me, O God.’” This declaration is known as Vidui Bikurim, the Confession over the First Fruit.
The question naturally arises, what is so monumental about this offering that it should call for such an elaborate recital?
The Talmud states (Rosh Hashanah 43b) that upon seeing the first blossoms of a fruit tree in the spring we must bless God “who did not leave anything lacking from His universe, and created in it good creations and good trees with which to cause pleasure to mankind.” Once again, we encounter an unusually elaborate blessing over fruit. More curiously, the blessing acknowledges God as the source of the pleasures we will have from the fruit tree only much later. Why did our Sages institute the blessing well in advance of the benefit we will derive from them? In fact, our Sages generally require that there be no interruptions between a blessing over a pleasure and the experience of the pleasure itself.
Of all naturally existing foodstuffs, fruit is unique in that it provides pure palliative pleasure. Even when our hunger is sated, we still find room for a fruit because of its delicious taste. In this sense, fruit represent a pleasure that is not necessary for our basic sustenance, a bonus from God that attests to His benevolence. Upon seeing the first bud of a fruit tree, we are reminded of His benevolent nature. We recognize that He created a world that provides not only our needs but also contains objects that exist only for our pleasure. And we bless Him for it.
Likewise, this reality underscores the Temple declaration over God’s enveloping benevolence¾our redemption from Egypt, the gift of His holy Torah, the gift of the land of Israel. Appropriately, we express these thoughts when we bring the first fruit. This is when we should feel the greatest surge of hakaras hatov, recognition and appreciation of God’s benevolence.
After the third and sixth years of the seven-year agricultural cycle, the Jewish landowner made a declaration that he had fulfilled all his obligations for agricultural tithes. He then petitioned God for His blessing (26:12-15). “When you have finished tithing every tithe of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithes, you shall give to the Levites, to the proselytes, to the orphan and to the widow, and they shall eat in your citadels and be satisfied. Then you shall say before God your Lord, ‘I removed the holy things from the house, I have given it to the Levites, to the proselytes, to the orphan and to the widow, according to whatever commandments You have commanded me . . . Gaze down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your people Israel and the earth you have given us . . .’”
Although the expression “gaze down” seems innocuous, it is really quite ominous. Rashi comments (Genesis 18:16), “Every mention of ‘gazing’ (hashkafah) in Scripture connotes something bad, except in the verse ‘gaze down from Your holy abode . . . for so great is the power of giving to the poor that it transforms God’s anger into mercy.”
Granted that the word gaze in this case has been transformed into an expression of mercy, as Rashi indicates, still, why did the Torah choose to have the landowner ask for God’s blessing with that particular word? Why not petition for a “looking” with no negative connotations?
The Midrash comments that the account of creation begins with the exclusive use of Elo-him, the Name that refers to God’s attribute of din, strict justice. Only afterward is the Tetragrammaton, the Name that refers to His attribute of mercy, attached to it. The Midrash explains that God initially intended to create the world according to din. When He saw that man could not withstand such a high standard, He added the quality of mercy (rachamim).
Ultimately, then, the world was created through a combination of strict justice and mercy. In His infinite wisdom, God determined that man would benefit most from fulfilling His will according to the letter of the law (din). In this circumstance, man is most responsible for his actions and thereby gains the most benefit to his soul through free-willed moral choices. However, man is unable to attain this ideal potential; therefore, God introduced the attribute of mercy (rachamim) in the equation of man’s judgment. The result of this combination of attributes is that God tempers His judgment, delaying or meting out punishment piecemeal in order to allow penitence to modify the judgment. According to our Sages, mankind in the messianic era will reach a level of existence high enough to live according to the attribute of din, which is the ultimate divine kindness in that it maximizes the benefit man can attain through his free choices.
At the end of the three-year agricultural cycle, the Jewish landowner declares that he has properly used the physical bounties God has bestowed upon him, that he has fulfilled his obligations of kindness and generosity to his fellow man. Within this framework of correctly fulfilling God’s purpose in creation, man is entitled to ask for God’s further blessing even according to the highest level of existence, which is strict justice, din. By saying “gaze down” he invokes the attribute of strict justice and demonstrates that he has transformed his own existence and earned the right to God’s kindness.