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FRUIT BASKET

by Michael Alterman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

After months of backbreaking work, the gift of their aspirations has finally arrived. Hashem has provided sustenance once again and the family will have enough to eat for the coming year.

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After months of backbreaking work, the gift of their aspirations has finally arrived. Hashem has provided sustenance once again and the family will have enough to eat for the coming year. But before they can sink their teeth into their freshly-harvested crop, the Torah commands in this week's portion that the farmer bring his bikurim, or first-ripened fruits, to the Temple in Jerusalem as a gift to the Kohen (priest). The sages describe the remarkable scene of thousands of people, rich and poor alike, converging on Jerusalem, rejoicing in song and dance with their baskets of fruit in hand, celebrating their successful harvest and offering thanks to Hashem.

Upon arriving in the Temple, the Torah commands: "The Kohen shall take the basket from your hand" (Deuteronomy 26:4). The Talmud (Baba Kama 92a) relates an interesting detail regarding this event. The wealthy people, who brought their fruits in exquisite gold and silver baskets, would hand the baskets to the Kohen with the fruits still inside. The Kohen would then remove the fruits and return the baskets to their owners. However, there was a different procedure for the poor people. Unlike their wealthy counterparts, the destitute farmers who brought their fruits in cheap wicker baskets would not receive them back from the Kohen; the fruits would remain inside the baskets until the Kohen took them home. The question, of course, is why the difference?

Rabbi Aharon Bakst, a great teacher of mussar (Jewish ethics) in the first part of this century, explains that the wealthy farmer probably owns many top quality fields. He has a lot of produce to present to the Kohen, and his fruits are beautiful and well-formed. The poor person, on the other hand, might only have one small field, and his produce is most likely of inferior quality. As a result, the amount of fruit that he brings to the Temple will be less both in quality and quantity. If the fruits would be removed in order to return the baskets to the owner, the poor farmer would be forced to suffer the embarrassment of having people see his meager gift. The halachah (Jewish law) therefore prescribes that the fruits should remain hidden in the basket.

Similarly, the Torah dictates that when bringing a bird as a korban olah (elevation offering), the feathers should be left attached as the bird is consumed on the altar (Leviticus 1:17). Rashi, the fundamental commentator on the Torah, points out that the odor produced by singed feathers is absolutely unbearable. If so, why must they be left attached? Bird-offerings are usually brought by poor people, who are unable to afford the more impressive bullock-offering. Were the bird's feathers to be removed, Rashi explains, the offering would be so tiny that the poor man would likely be embarrassed by the minimal flame and the speed with which his offering would be consumed. To increase the size of the fire and thereby protect the delicate feelings of the poor person, the Torah requires the feathers to be burned as well. It is better to endure the putrid smell of the feathers than to risk embarrassing the poor man.

These are just two of the many examples of how the Torah goes out of its way to protect the feelings of the poor and downtrodden. However, this mitzvah is not limited to our treatment of the destitute. The sages state, "One should let himself be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than expose his neighbor to public shame" (Talmud Tractate Sotah 10b). Remarkably, this places the requirement not to humiliate another person on par with the three cardinal sins - idolatry, murder, and forbidden relationships - for which we are expected to give our lives rather than transgress. This is an astonishing law if we take the time to think about it, and it should certainly convince us of the severity of the transgression.

Carefully avoiding the embarrassment of other people is an important thing to do throughout the year, but as the Day of Judgment approaches it is absolutely critical. As was mentioned earlier in this issue of Torah from Dixie, Hashem deals with us in the same manner that we deal with our peers. If we are merciful to others and go out of our way to treat them with kindness, Hashem will take that into consideration in His judgment of us. However, if we are strict and critical of others, showing no care for their feelings, Hashem will reciprocate that attitude and determine our ruling accordingly. By taking extra care in our interpersonal relationships to respect other people's feelings, may we merit to be signed and sealed for a year of health and happiness.

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Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with the Ner Israel Rabbinical College and Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

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