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.