Myth and Ritual: Bringing the First Fruits

Myths (per Gillman, defined as "a structure through which a community organizes and makes sense of its experience") are intrinsic to communities. In fact, myths create communities. When they assume narrative form, they recount the community's "master story," explaining how that community came into being, what distinguishes it from other communities, how it understands its distinctive history and destiny, what constitutes its unique value system. A myth provides a community with its distinctive raison d'etre. Religious myths do all of this for a religious community. They also convey the community's distinctive answers to ultimate human questions.

Sacred Fragments, by Rabbi Neil Gillman, p. 28

(א) וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ׃ (ב) וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ מֵרֵאשִׁ֣ית ׀ כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃ (ג) וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֗יו הִגַּ֤דְתִּי הַיּוֹם֙ לַיהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּי־בָ֙אתִי֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְהוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ לָ֥תֶת לָֽנוּ׃ (ד) וְלָקַ֧ח הַכֹּהֵ֛ן הַטֶּ֖נֶא מִיָּדֶ֑ךָ וְהִ֨נִּיח֔וֹ לִפְנֵ֕י מִזְבַּ֖ח יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ (ה) וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גָר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב׃ (ו) וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה׃ (ז) וַנִּצְעַ֕ק אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְהוָה֙ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עָנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ׃ (ח) וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ יְהוָה֙ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים׃ (ט) וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ׃ (י) וְעַתָּ֗ה הִנֵּ֤ה הֵבֵ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־רֵאשִׁית֙ פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תָּה לִּ֖י יְהוָ֑ה וְהִנַּחְתּ֗וֹ לִפְנֵי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ וְהִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִ֔יתָ לִפְנֵ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ׃ (יא) וְשָׂמַחְתָּ֣ בְכָל־הַטּ֗וֹב אֲשֶׁ֧ר נָֽתַן־לְךָ֛ יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ וּלְבֵיתֶ֑ךָ אַתָּה֙ וְהַלֵּוִ֔י וְהַגֵּ֖ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ (ס)

(1) When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, (2) you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name. (3) You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the LORD your God that I have entered the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to assign us.” (4) The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. (5) You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. (6) The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. (7) We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. (8) The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. (9) He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (10) Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” You shall leave it before the LORD your God and bow low before the LORD your God. (11) And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household.

Rituals are physical expressions of myths (per May, defined as "a way of making sense in a senseless world"). The myth is the narration, and the ritual expresses the myth in bodily action. Rituals and myths supply fixed points in a world of bewildering change and disappointment. The myth may be prior to the ritual, or the ritual may come first. Either way, one gives birth to the other...We all cry for a collective myth which gives us a fixed spot in an otherwise chaotic universe.

Adapted from The Cry for Myth, by Dr. Rollo May, pp. 50-53

The mitzvah of the first fruits was a preparation for Rosh Hashana, because obviously most of the first fruits were brought by this time. Since by the end of the year, the people would bring back the first fruits to the Holy One, thus the end of everything would be joined with its beginning. For this reason, the first fruits are called reishit...for the root of tshuvah, returning, is cleaving to first fruits, reishit, beginning. And now, alas, that we no longer physically have first fruits to offer, it is still possible to set everything right with the intentions of the heart.

Teaching of the Sfat Emet, adapted from Sparks Beneath the Surface (Kusher/Olitsky)

(ה) ארמי אבד אבי. וזה ג"כ ענין בכורים כאשר תבוא אל הארץ ויהיה לך כל טוב תחזיר הטובה לה' והיינו לבהמ"ק ותתן את המובחר לכהן ותדע כי עדיין הכל ביד הבורא, וזה הענין חידש יעקב אבינו ע"ה, כי אברהם אבינו ע"ה היה עובד את ה' במדות בכל לבבך ויצחק בכל נפשך, ויעקב במדות בכל מאודך היינו אחר קבלות הטובה שהחזיר אליו, כמו שאמר יעקב וכל אשר תתן לי עשר אעשרנו לך.

When you come into the land and you receive all the good, you must return it to God (that is to say, the Temple) by giving the choice produce to the priest. In doing this, you know that all is still in the hand of the Creator. Ya'akov had established this whole practice, for Avraham served God with the attribute of "with all your heart," Yitzchak with the attribute of "with all your soul," and Ya'akov with the attribute of "with all your abundance." This means that after receiving all the good, that you should return it to Him, as Ya'akov said: "all that you give me, I will surely tithe it to you."

R. Elimelech of Lyzhansk taught: a man goes down into his field and sees the first ripe fig; he ties a thread on it and declares: behold, this is the first fruit! A man goes down into his field and sees the first ripe fig and his soul desires to eat it, his desire burns inside him- he ties a thread upon it. He remembers and realizes that he is only a mortal human being and that tomorrow grass might be growing through his jaws. This is one of the reasons for crowning of the first fruit by being the very best of its kind, in order that a person might be compelled to restrain his desire even more on account of it. For he controls his urge and rules over his spirit from the beginning of the gathering until the first fruits are brought to the Temple.

Adapted from Sparks Beneath the Surface (Kushner/Olitsky)