Reishis – First and Foremost
You shall take of every fruit of the ground produced by the land that Hashem your G-d is giving you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that G-d will choose (Devarim 26:2)
The Torah commands us to take the first fruits and bring them to the Kohen as a thanksgiving offering to Hashem. Elsewhere we are enjoined to dedicate all our firsts to Hashem — the first shearings of the wool, the first of the dough, the firstborn of man and animal, etc. Why did the Torah not command us to offer the best of our produce and not the first?
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 kedushah, the beginning must be holy and pure if holiness and purity is 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 Hashem to firmly establish the foundation and root of all that follows.
The Yerushalmi in Chagigah blames Elisha ben Avuya’s tragic departure from the path of Torah on an incident that occurred on the day of his bris. The great Sages of Jerusalem were discussing Torah at his bris 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 hie 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 conclude there is neither justice nor a judge. R’ 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 Gemara (Bava Metzia 85b) relates that when R’ 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 one 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 R’ Chyia to plant the flax and make the nets. Couldn’t he have bought these? The answer is that very 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 halacha is that impure oil may be used for a mitzvah incumbent on the tzibbur (community). Chanukah was a rededication of the Beis Hamikdash and the Menorah. As such it was a new beginning, and only pure oil was fitting. Only when the kedushah has been firmly established can impure oil be used for its maintenance.
The special significance that Chazal 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 Eretz Yisrael at Mount Eival and Mount Grizim, emphasize the fact that our first encounter with Eretz Yisrael 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 mitzvos. 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 Hashem 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 hashanah — the foundation and root of the year. Each of these ten days must be treated as firsts, dedicated to Hashem in purity and holiness. Hence the extra stringencies, the more intense davening 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 the wisest of men say, “The end of the matter is greater than the beginning,” but can be understood, “A good end emanates from the beginning.”