A BASKET OF THANKS – “Kee Tavo” Deut. 26-29:8, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week Moses concludes his second parting Discourse and begins the third. His message once again highlights choices, to be dramatically presented to the people once they enter the Promised Land. Six tribes will hail the positive on one mountainside, and the other six will warn about the negative on the facing mountainside. He details requirements for tithes. He reminds them of their Covenant with G-d. He restates the violations that can bring curses in their wake. He instructs them on how to build an altar, using no iron tool – no weapon-like implement – in that process. Expanding on the history they and their parents lived, Moses recalls his people’s experience in Egypt and concludes this section by recounting the victory over formidable enemies like Sihon and Og.
Before getting into his oratory, however, Moses delivers a simple commandment about First Fruits. In the very second sentence of this week’s reading he says: “Take some of the first [to ripen] from every fruit of the ground, that you gather from the land that G-d is giving you, and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that G-d will choose for His name to dwell there, and go to the “cohen,” the priest, who will be there in those days and tell him: ‘I declare before G-d today that I came into the land that He swore to our fathers to give us.’ And the priest will take the basket from your hand and place it before the altar.” Not all the crops qualify to enter the basket, says Rashi quoting the Talmud. Just the seven fruits typical of the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olives and date-honey. These fruits represent the land. Bringing them to the altar expresses the Jew’s thanks for that land.
Why must the first fruits be placed in a basket? Really, why “dafka” a basket? Other mitzvot about offerings do not have specifications like this. Couldn’t the farmer just tie them in a bundle? Shlep them in a sack? What is so special about this basket that Moses includes it in the commandment?
It remained for the Lubavitcher Rebbe to deal with this question. In his Likutei Sichos he quotes the Midrash that teaches the mystical idea of creation, namely that the Divine intention to create Jewish souls “preceded everything.” So Jewish souls are comparable to “first fruits.” From this mystic text, we learn that before birth the soul is in Heaven enjoying a pure and ecstatic relationship with the Creator. Nevertheless that soul is sent to Earth to inhabit a body which conceals its Divine relationship. But through the very concealment, a human soul can carry out a mission in the physical world which is exactly G-d’s purpose in sending it here. In essence, then, just as the offering of first fruits needs a basket to attain its place at the altar, so the human soul needs a body to accomplish its purpose on Earth.
Following this idea through, we can conclude that as the priest “takes the basket from your hand,” so the L-rd takes the body when the time comes. Let us hope that the soul within that body earned its place on the holy altar.