THE UNDERLYING significance of the mitzvah of bringing bikurim - the first ripe fruits - is summarized in a short passage which he who brought them into the Temple was required to recite. "And now, behold, I have brought the first of the soil which Thou, O Lord, hast given me" (Deut. 26: 10).

Our sages read profound meanings into three crucial Hebrew words in the declaration. The word ve-atah is interpreted as miyad, meaning immediately. Miyad has a powerful sense of urgency about it. It implies that one must not delay to bring bikurim, for when fruits lose their freshness, when bikurim become stale, they are no longer fit to be brought before the altar of God.

This thought should be stressed constantly. If one wishes to bring bikurim, if he sincerely desires to make a contribution to the needs of one's community and people, one ought to do it miyad - with dispatch. One should not procrastinate and wait until old age, when he will go to Shule to escape loneliness and boredom. One should appropriate some precious minutes today, now when one is still young, vibrant and fresh.

The second word in that phrase is hineh - behold. The rabbis interpret that word as meaning besimcha - with joy. One must bring bikurim with a happy heart, with feelings of joy.

How pertinent is this rabbinic comment for us today! There was a time, and that not long ago, when Judaism in all its manifestations was a source of solace and joy to the Jew. He exulted in the performance of mitzvot and derived pleasure from studying Torah. Who can properly describe the happiness of the talmid chacham in the bet ha-midrash when he discovered a new meaning in a difficult text or a new thought in an obscure verse? Who can gauge the joy of the Jewish housewife when, after saving pennies for the Sabbath or festival, managed to prepare delectable dishes for her loved ones?

Some of us still cherish the fond memory of the first day we were taken to Cheder. With what pride the parents wrapped us in a large talit and brought us to the Jewish school! Their eyes beamed with tears of joy at the sight of their little son being introduced to the magical world of the aleph-bet. There was simchah - true delight and happiness.

How many sermons have to be preached and how much literature must be published these days until parents consent to enroll their children and give them the barest Jewish education! Alas, knowledge of Torah has been reduced to a necessary burden instead of a source of simchah.

The entire range of Jewish life was once permeated with a profound sense of serenity and joy in compliance with the words of the Psalmist, "Serve the Lord with joy; come before Him with song" (Ps. 100:2). There was pride and hitlahavut in the hearts of our people. But how is it with us now? Even a superficial examination will reveal that we have lost the art of worshipping God with joy; that by-and-large we discharge our religious obligations mechanically - in a perfunctory manner. That is why many people cry, es iz shver tzu zein a yid, that Judaism is a burden and an oppressive yoke; that is why Judaism is no longer a source of simchah but has become a dirge. I shall not speak of those who turn to religion only in moments of sorrow, bereavement, and despair. But even those who do participate in Jewish activities and observances do so without real simchah or thrill.

What are the usual complaints that one hears these days? "The services are too long; the Sabbaths and Holidays involve hardship and sacrifice." These and other gripes are the result of lack of happiness in living up to the commandments of the Torah.

The greatest compliment we pay an American Jew is that he is a shomer shabos, which stresses the economic sacrifice that Sabbath observance entails - and, of course, it does. But why do we not consider the happiness that it provides for him and his family? Why do we fail to affirm the historic truth that more than the Jew kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jew?

There is yet a third requisite for bringing bikurim that is expressed in the word heveti - "I brought." The sages say that the word means misheli "from me." The bikurim that the Jew brings to the Temple must be his own.

We are witnessing these days a new and alien concept of Judaism. For lack of a better phrase, it is referred to as "Judaism by proxy." There are those who respect the tenets of our Faith, and some even claim that they love the Jewish way of life, but they prefer that others should observe and perform for them. They delegate the rabbi to study for them, the cantor to pray for them, and the sexton to say kaddish and observe yahrzeit for them. This is not misheli.

The other day a man bemoaned the fact that in the section he would like to move to there is no synagogue, and he therefore cannot locate there. When I complimented him for his forethought and care, he reassured me by saying, "Rabbi, please don't get me wrong. I don't need a synagogue for myself. It is for my old father that I need it."

Misheli has yet another connotation. It implies that when we bring bikurim we ought to give until we feel it. We must learn to give even when we have to deny some needs or pleasures to ourselves, until "we feel the pinch" in giving.

Let us take the message of miyad, besirnchah, and misheli to heart, and our bikurim will bring us a life of serenity and joy. Amen.

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