First Fruits: A Theology of Privilege

Temple service once included the practice of bringing bikkurim to the temple—the first fruits that grow from the land of Israel, the land that the Holy One promised our ancestors. These bikkurim are both an expression of gratitude for our inheritance and a gift to the Kohanim, the priests that keep the temple service going.

Just before we read about the ritual of bikkurim in Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, we read the commandment to blot out the nation of Amalek in Ki Teitzei, last week’s Torah portion. The commandment to blot out Amalek, like bikkurim,  is commanded for when we are in in the land that God has given us.

In the commandment itself, we are instructed to blot out the “remembrance of Amalek from under heaven—you shall not forget” (Deut. 25:19). This is an odd pairing. We are to blot out a remembrance—we are not to forget. How do we blot out a remembrance and not forget? It would seem that if we blotted out a remembrance, we would forget!  While the literal meaning of the text may be to not forget to blot out the remembrance, we seem to be stuck in a circular logic of memory and forgetting. 

This is true for Bikkurim as well. The liturgy recited at the temple insists on us remembering how God brought us out of Egypt and gave us the gift of liberation. The text briefly mentions the plagues that God brought forth on Egypt that made our liberation possible. While the Torah does not make this connection explicitly, I believe that the word bikkurim, is meant to remind us of the last plague—makkat ha’b’chorot—the slaying of the first born. Bikkurim and b’chorot, both coming from the same root (.ב.כ.ר), remind us of those who suffered, those who died along our paths to privilege. The Egyptians, the Canaanites–the list is long, both then and now.

Bikkurim tuck this memory into its linguistic root, but also the roots of the plants that yield our bounty.

Bikkurim, like the commandment to blot out Amalek, encourages us both to remember and to forget the pain of others. This pain is masked in the garb of joy, gratitude, and gift-giving, but it is still there, buried in the roots.  

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One thought on “First Fruits: A Theology of Privilege

  1. I like the odd pairing of concepts in the linking of the shared stem of each word – first fruits and firstborn. That’s the way I read Tanach also, searching for the poetry in the story and the recurring sounds. I am not fluent in Hebrew. I read with computer assistance allowing me to see the shared letters and with some limited automated translation. I am about 25% through the text. The database keeps my memory and control of what I have done. I see this word in Psalm 136:10.
    לְמַכֵּ֣ה מִ֭צְרַיִם בִּבְכוֹרֵיהֶ֑ם
    כִּ֖י לְעוֹלָ֣ם חַסְדּֽוֹ

    And we are particularly to note that the rationale for the destruction of the firstborn was related and remains related to the חסד (hesed, loving-kindness) that is from Hashem and characteristic of this God, and that kindness and character is for ever. What a hard lesson for us all.

    I have all the text of the Leningrad codex available to me electronically and I am just beginning to do some statistics on the accents and their value as music. I hope the love song will become more apparent.

    By the way – on the tension between memory and forgetting. It is the Name that is grounded in our remembering. So he says in Exodus 3:15 as I am sure you know (I began my reading in the Writings and have done very little in the Torah yet.) זֶה שְּׁמִ֣י לְעֹלָ֔ם וְזֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר This is my name for ever and this is my memorial for generations. I don’t know quite what to make of the last two words. They are missing the vav I would expect לדר ודר with or without plene spelling. Memory is contained in that name that says I will be who I will be or as my automated translation has it I would be who I would be – very odd! I think the mode of my translation is random. My routine is not very smart.

    And as for the accents, I have the music in pdf form at this link based on some very simple inferred rules (much easier to understand than emperors, princes, dukes, and so on.) The music seems very matter of fact after the atnach in verse 15. But it is significantly long and serious in the approach to this rest late in the verse. Resting on ‘to you’. Wonderful that the emphasis is like this and on this word. God – the one remembered through the patriarchs of the promises – is himself remembered through his name that is one of being and becoming. Quite a responsibility we have then…

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