When my husband and I redesigned our backyard last year, I was determined to plant a fruit tree of some kind. One of the unique characteristics of Los Angeles that I always loved is the cornucopia of orange, lemon, kumquat, and pomegranate trees lining the sidewalks and fence lines in the city. I did not care which kind of fruit tree, I just wanted one of our own. We ultimately landed on a lemon tree, and it is slowly working towards producing fruit, hopefully to be used in a salad dressing or chicken marinade in the future.
In many unexpected ways, living in Southern California actually keeps us in rhythm with the most ancient elements of Jewish life from thousands of years ago. Many of the practices and rituals of Judaism come from the time in our history when the Jewish people lived an agricultural-based life in the land of Israel. Jewish traditions and ways of life centered around the agricultural season and the mitzvot connected to them: there is a Jewish way to deal with fruits and vegetables. Strangely enough, the weather patterns and seasons of Southern California match up quite closely with those of Israel. Two thousand years later, the most seemingly outdated rituals and traditions maintain their relevance for us when we watch the citrus and pomegranates blossom.
Our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, includes an important mitzvah for tending to these fruits and crops. As Deut. 26 teaches, when the bikkurim, the first fruits of the season, appear in your fields, you must gather them up and bring them to the priests as an offering to God. We cannot eat them ourselves. It is a curious offering, however, because the first produce of the crop is often not the best. The under-ripe fruits still taste a bit tart, the color still looks a bit green. Not the ideal offering we would imagine should go to God. Yet we offer them anyway.
Several years ago on the night before my first day of rabbinical school, Rabbi Michael Marmur gave me and my classmates a few words of encouragement as we began this new journey. As he taught us, Rabbi Marmur pushed us to bring our own bikkurim, the first fruits of our budding rabbinic skills, ideas, and energy, the next day. They may be under-ripe and green, he told us, but you still need to offer them. They are good enough, and you have reached the new season to bring them into the world.
We have entered into a time of the year filled with new opportunities of the season. Rosh Hashanah approaches with exciting, and slightly alarming, speed. We launched a new school year and welcomed our children back to the classrooms this week. As we move into this new season, we may not feel ready for all of the new things that will come. But the time has come to offer our best energies and efforts, whether it is to the spiritual work of cheshbon ha’nefesh (soul-searching) and teshuvah (repairing mistakes) or to the early morning alarms and homework of a new school year. We might feel worried about whether we are up to the task, but what we have to offer is good enough.
The lemon tree in my backyard continues to grow, and the first hints of fruit will start to blossom soon enough. I am not sure what exactly I will do with this first crop, but it is important that I honor the produce that the little tree put so much effort into creating. On this Shabbat and as we turn the page to a new year, may we gather and offer our bikkurim, our under-ripe and green first attempts, with confidence and optimism for the many ways we will continue to grow this year.
Rabbi Hannah Elkin