First and Foremost
Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )
The importance of building a strong foundation.
"You shall take of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose."(Deut. 26:2)
The Torah commands us to take the first fruits and bring them to the Kohen as a thanksgiving offering to God. Elsewhere we are enjoined to dedicate all our "firsts" to God – the first shearings of the wool, the first of the dough, the firstborn of man and animal, etc. Why does the Torah command us to offer the first of our produce instead of the best?
The importance of the "first" lies in the fact that it is the root and foundation of all that follows. The foundation of a building must be totally free of imperfections. A hairline crack in the foundation endangers the entire building, whereas that same crack in the fourth floor would not be significant. Similarly, with respect to everything having to do with kedusha, the beginning must be holy and pure if holiness and purity are to emanate from it. Any imperfection in the root will manifest itself a hundredfold in what grows out of it. Therefore, we dedicate all "firsts" to God to firmly establish the foundation and root of all that follows.
The Talmud (Yerushalmi – Chagiga) blames Elisha ben Avuya's tragic departure from the path of Torah on an incident that occurred on the day of his brit. The great Sages of Jerusalem were discussing Torah at his brit with such intensity that a fire descended from the heavens and surrounded them. When Elisha's father saw this, he announced that he would devote his son to Torah so that he would also be able to work such wonders.
His father's distorted motivation left its mark on his brilliant son, when later in life Elisha came to distorted conclusions on the basis of various incidents he witnessed. He saw a child fall to his death while fulfilling his father's command to send away the mother bird before taking her eggs. Since the Torah specifically promises length of days for honoring one's parents and sending away the mother bird, he concluded there is neither justice nor a judge. (Rabbi Yaakov, however, saw that reward for mitzvos is not in this world but rather in the next.)
And so, too, from a good beginning comes good. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 85b) relates that when Rebbe Chiya reintroduced Torah in a generation in which it had been forgotten, he began by planting flax. From the flax he made nets to capture deer. Upon the skins of those deer he wrote the Five Books of the Torah. He would then travel from town to town teaching Torah to five boys in each town. With each he learned one book of Chumash. To six older boys he taught one order of Mishnah each. Each then taught the others what he had learned, and in this way, Torah was once again established.
Why was it necessary for Rebbe Chiya to plant the flax and make the nets? Couldn't he have bought these? The answer is that every new beginning is the construction of a foundation. Only if every step is taken with holy and pure intentions will the result be holy and pure.
The same principle answers a question asked with respect to Chanukah: Why was a miracle necessary to insure that the menorah not be lit with impure oil? The law is that impure oil may be used for a mitzvah incumbent on the community.
[The answer is that] Chanukah was a rededication of the Temple and the Menorah. As such it was a new beginning, and only pure oil was fitting. Only when the holiness has been firmly established can impure oil be used for its maintenance.
The special significance that the Sages attach to the education of young children lies in the fact that we are setting the foundations of their Torah. Similarly, the blessings and curses uttered upon our entrance into the Land of Israel, at Mount Eival and Mount Grizim, emphasize the fact that our first encounter with Israel must set the foundation for our future settlement of the land. That required an intense awareness of our duties and responsibilities.
During the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, it is customary to be extra stringent in one's observance of mitzvot. Thus, even one who is not usually strict about eating kosher bread baked by a non-Jew (pas palter) should nevertheless be strict during that period. At first glance this practice seems difficult to understand, for it applies even to a person who intends to eat pas palter the rest of the year. Are we trying to fool God into thinking we are more pious than we actually are in order to secure a favorable judgment?
The significance of this conduct lies in the fact that Rosh Hashanah is not just the beginning of the year, but reishis hashana – the foundation and root of the year. Each of these ten days must be treated as firsts, dedicated to God in purity and holiness. Hence the extra stringencies, the more intense prayer and learning, are not merely for show. They are designed to lay the foundation for the entire year. Even if the building of the coming year is not constructed of such quality materials, the foundation will give it strength.
Thus did [King Solomon], the wisest of men say, tov acharis davar me'resihiso (Ecclesiastes 7:8), which is usually translated as "The end of the matter is greater than the beginning," but can also be understood, "A good end emanates from the beginning."