IN THIS WEEK'S TORAH READING, the LORD commanded that the firstfruits (bikkurim) of crops be brought to the priests in the central sanctuary in a prescribed ritual. This celebration later was associated with the festival of Shavuot ("Pentecost").
Each family would go up to Jerusalem to present a basket of their finest fruits to a kohen (priest), who then would wave it in seven directions (tenufah) and set it before the altar. The worshipper would then recite a ceremonial vidui (confession) before the priest that began, "A wandering Aramean was my father." Some of the sages understand this opening phrase to mean: "An Aramean destroyed my father," based on the the verb oved (אבד) that alludes to devastation (the word Abaddon comes from the same root). So understood, this confession thanks God not only for Israel's deliverance from bondage in Egypt, but also from the evil designs of Laban who sought to kill Jacob when he left for the Promised Land. The sages reasoned that "Uncle Laban" was at heart an enemy of God who literally sought to kidnap the sons of Israel (Gen. 31:43).
Though this portion begins with a joyful subject that celebrates God's faithfulness, it also includes a litany of curses (kelalot) proclaimed for those who stray away from the truth of Torah. The frightening list of curses is summed up in Deut. 28:45-48:
All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.
Notice something profoundly important here: All the varied and distressing curses enumerated in this Torah portion would come upon those who refused to serve the LORD "with joy (simchah, שִׂמְחָה) and gladness of heart." In other words, living a discontented and ungrateful life leads to greater and greater rebellion. Genuine joy is heartfelt appreciation at the wonder and grace of God. Indeed, the Greek word for joy (χαρα) is related to the word for grace (χαρις), so there is a deep inner connection between grace and joy (Phil. 4:4). The joy of the LORD is our strength (Neh. 8:10).
The sages connect the joy of offering first fruits with the study of Torah, since the phrase "You shall take from the first" (Deut. 26:2) alludes to the Torah, the first part of our wisdom (Psalm 111:10). In the world to come, the first thing you will be asked is if you had learned the wisdom and truth of Torah.... "Blessed ("happy") is the man who...delights in the Torah of the LORD and meditates upon it day and night" (Psalm 1:1-2). If you find studying and living the truth of Scripture joyless, then be careful that you don't drift into spiritual exile.
Why is this portion of Torah always read during the Season of Teshuvah (i.e., Repentance)? Because the blessings and curses are intended to awaken us to perform "soul searching (cheshbon ha-nefesh, חֶשְׁבּוֹן הַנֶּפֶשׁ) and teshuvah. The Talmud says, "Repent one day before you die." But who knows the day of one's death in advance? Therefore live each day as if it were to be your last, and live it with joy.
Shuva! Return to the LORD and serve Him with gladness (Psalm 100:2). Come in joy of what Yeshua, our Firstfruit of the LORD (1 Cor. 15:20), has done for you: "Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Pet. 1:8-9).