This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, explains the laws of bringing first fruits to the Temple. “Then you will take from the first of every fruit of the earth that you brought forth from your land which Hashem your God gives to you; then you shall place it in the basket and go to the place that Hashem your God will choose for God’s name to reside there,” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The basket and the fruits are taken by a cohen and placed in front of the altar. The midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, the Sifrei (parashat Ki Tavo, no. 300), reports that rich people would bring their first fruits in gold or silver vases, while the poor would bring them in wicker baskets. It also reports that the baskets themselves were given to the priests along with the fruit, “in order to increase gifts to the priests.” This implies that, unlike the baskets, the vases brought by the rich were returned. Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (15-16th Century Italy) comments that this supports the folk saying that, “Poverty follows the poor.” The rich get to show off without losing anything, and the poor look bad and lose out financially. The statement of the midrash is also nonsensical. If the Torah really wanted to increase the gifts given to to the priests, it would direct them to keep the gold and silver vases brought by the rich.
Allowing the rich to be financially ostentatious around first fruits stands in contrast to the Rabbinic approach to food brought to houses of mourning. The Talmud teaches (Mo’ed Katan 27a) that, originally, people would bring food to a house of mourning differently depending on their wealth: the rich in gold and silver vases, and the poor in wicker baskets. However, this embarrassed the poor; for the sake of their honor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should bring food to a house of mourning in wicker baskets. That is, in order to protect the dignity of the poor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should act like a poor person when bringing food to a house of mourning. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13-14th Century Catalonia) explains that a person is constantly required to examine their actions to ensure they do not embarrass the poor. Further, a rich person should make themself equal to the poor in order to not cause shame.
The tension between laws around bringing first fruits to the Temple and bringing food to mourners leads many commentators to attempt a resolution. In my humble opinion, a resolution may be found in a different version of the midrash from Sifrei, brought by the Vilna Gaon (Eliyah ben Shlomo, 18th Century Lithuania). Instead of ending the midrash with, “in order to increase gifts to the priests”, his version ends, “in order to give merit to the poor.” The Torah Temimah (Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 19-20th Centuries Lithuania) suggests that the reason the poor give their baskets to the priests is because they actually made the baskets out of the first fruits, so the baskets themselves are due to the priests as well. This makes the baskets both a merit to the poor and a true gift to the priests. Perhaps the rich also desired to give their baskets to the priests. But the priests have no interest in a gift that was merely a purchase, made with the money one happens to have. While that may seem like a beautification of serving God, just like a present wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper that came from the store, it is too easy. The rich might have nicer fruit to bring to the Temple than the poor, but they merely wrap it in what their money can buy; and money, to them, is easily disposable. However, the poor person, whose fruit is likely inferior to the rich person’s, uses their own hand and effort to beautify God’s gifts. They may not have anything great to offer, but they make it into something great. That is, their own poverty gives them motivation to create something truly worthy of a gift to the priests. This is why the priests only take the baskets from the poor, and this is why this practice gives merit to the priests.
My explanation does not immediately solve the initial problem. If delivering the first fruits in hand-made baskets is more meritorious, then the rich should also bring first fruits in hand-made baskets, just like when they bring food to mourners. Second, if bringing handmade baskets is more meritorious when bringing first fruits, why would it suddenly become more embarrassing for the poor when they bring food to mourners?
In the case of the Temple, the two methods of bringing first fruits - in precious vases or in wicker baskets - are empowering to a person’s station in life. This is strengthened by the statement made when bringing the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramean; then he descended to Egypt in small numbers, but he became there a great nation, strong and numerous,” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The rich and the poor have a common story, a story of both poverty and wealth. The great ancestors of the Israelites went through periods of each. Therefore, both being rich and being poor have an anchor in our heritage; neither is a position that should bring shame. In the current time, when they are giving their first fruits to their Temple, they are permitted to do so in a way that gives them pride in their place in life - for the rich, using their wealth for beauty, and for the poor, using their work for beauty.
However, the case of death and mourning is different. I have heard people discuss how equalizing death is. But the Talmud relates that before the Rabbis made decrees to equalize how the dead and their mourners were treated, it was anything but equalizing. The reason we bury bodies in closed caskets is because poor people who died tended to look famished, while rich people looked well cared-for (Mo’ed Katan 27b). The size of the crowd at a funeral or the number of eulogies were often related to a person’s fame or wealth. Funerals and mourning created an inequality of pride, which necessitated Rabbinic interference to equalize how people acted.
We need to ask ourselves about whether the institutions we build and activities we hold are more like bringing first fruits to the Temple or more like bringing food to mourners. Do they create an environment where everyone can be proud of their station in life, or an environment which gives pride to some at the expense of others? If we can build the former, we are doing well. But when we fail to do so, we might wish to take lesson from the Rabbis. In such cases, those who have power and wealth should take heed of the Meiri’s injunction: they should humble themselves, ensuring no one is ashamed due to lack of wealth or power. May we merit to build a world where all of our spaces are like the Temple at the time when first fruits were brought. Then we can fulfill the vision of Rabbi Akiva, who sees everyone, even the poor of Israel, as equally deserving of pride - as befits the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום