As Moshe prepares for his death and the transference of leadership to his trusty right-hand man, Yehoshua, he finally concludes his oration to the nation in this week’s parsha. And how does he do it? Not with a warning against straying from God’s path and worshipping other gods, and not with reiterating the need to love God and preserve His mitzvot; he rather chooses to end his final message to his beloved nation whom he must leave behind with the mitzvot of the Bikurim and Ma’aser declarations.
Why does he choose to conclude his monumental leadership career with these two commandments? Was there nothing more significant, dramatic, or fundamental to relay to this fledgling nation on the eve of their finally entering their Promised Land?
Before we can appreciate the motivation behind Moshe’s choice, we must understand the mitzvot themselves. Interesting to note about these two mitzvot is their glaring similarities. Both require 1) traveling to Yerushalyim, 2) declarations to the Kohen (which include the mentioning of the God-given Land), and 3) the bringing of produce of the Land and the requirement of ‘simcha’.
Bikurim requires the farmer to bring his specifically separated first-fruit to the Kohen and proclaim a prescribed formulaic declaration: ‘My forefather was a lost Aramaean…and the Egyptians oppressed us…and we called out to God…and He took us out of Egypt…and brought us to this place and gave us this Land…and now, I have brought the first fruits of the Land that God gave me…’. The last line of the Bikurim instructions requires the farmer and family to then ‘revel’ (‘simcha’) in all the good that God has given him/them.
The Ma’aser declaration is performed ‘before God’ in Yerushalayim on the seventh day of Pesach, when the farmer must declare that he has done exactly what was required of him with the portion of his produce apportioned for Ma’aser: he has given it to the Leviim, the poor, the widows and the orphans (during the third and sixth years of Shmitah) or eaten it himself in Yerushalyim (during the remaining years); he has not eaten it in sadness or despair (rather in happiness (‘simcha’)). He then concludes with a beseeching to God, to: ‘look down, from Your holy dwelling in the heavens, and bless His nation and the Land that He gave us, as He promised our forefathers…’
Through these numerous similarities we can also appreciate the subtle difference which is therefore emphasized: although both mitzvot require declarations concerning the God-given Land, the Bikurim message expresses gratitude for the past blessing that God has provided through the vehicle of the Land, while the proclamation for Ma’aser asks God for future agricultural blessings.
What is the similar symbolic message of these two mitzvot? God requires every Jew (the majority of whom at the time were farmers) to share with Him the feelings of ‘happiness’ he experiences from his abundant crop. The specific context of this sharing, however, is significantly defined by the required accompanying declaration: “I am bringing my crop before God Who provided me with the Land, exactly as promised, from which this great bounty has come; I share my happiness with Him as an expression of my awareness of the true Source of my satisfaction. And, it is this consciousness that is to be understood as not only within the context of what God has done for me, but what He will continue to do”; this is the two-pronged, eternal message conveyed through Moshe’s Bikurim/Ma’aser pairing.
And now we can understand the reasoning behind Moshe’s choice for this particular finale to his speech. This nation, as opposed to the previous generation, will soon be entering into the Land; while the commandments they will have to observe, as enumerated throughout the Torah and reiterated during these last few weeks, are, of course, integral, bottom line however, is that the ultimate goal for their lives in the Land is to continually sustain and strengthen their relationship with God. The commanded mitzvot are simply the vehicles with which to achieve this fundamental goal; however, what is most important is the Divine relationship itself and it is this specific message that Moshe felt compelled to finish his charge to the nation with: ‘When you finally enter the Land as the successful conclusion to exactly what God has promised, and you continue to live in prosperity and satisfaction just as God has promised you, make sure to personally recognize and publicly proclaim your deep appreciation of the ultimate Source of everything you are and everything you have; it is this that God truly demands of you’.