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First Fruits

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, used to travel from town to town in Eastern Europe. In each place he would gather around him the simple, poverty-stricken Jews and give them spiritual encouragement and sustenance. He’d ask them about their daily lives, and was gratified to hear their responses – “Thank G-d”; “Bless G-d”; “With the help of G-d.”

The Baal Shem Tov did not ask them about their spiritual wellbeing, their prayer or Torah study. Rather, he’d ask about their physical lives – their health, their livelihood, their families. The cornerstone of his philosophy was, “A Jew’s physical need is spiritual.” We are here not only to study Torah and engage in spiritual pursuits. Our purpose in life is to make the physical holy – to sanctify G-d through every mundane act.

This teaching is reflected in the mitzvah of orlah, discussed in this week’s Torah portion. For the first three years after a tree is planted, its fruits are forbidden to be eaten and are called orlah. The fruits of the fourth year may be eaten, but only in Jerusalem, while in a state of ritual purity, after giving praise to G-d. These fruits are called neta revaii.

Finally, the fruits of the fifth year may be eaten anywhere, by anyone, in any state. And as a reward for keeping the mitzvot of orlah and neta revaii, G-d assures us that the produce of the fifth year will be bountiful.

Rabbi Schneur Zalmen of Liadi explains that in a certain respect the fruits of the fifth year are holier than the fruits of the four preceding years. The fruits of the first three years are forbidden altogether, while those of the fourth year can be eaten only in Jerusalem. But G-d states in the Torah that in the fifth year He will add on to the crop – indicating that there will be an addition not only in quantity but also in holiness.

If the fruits of the fifth year are even more sanctified than the previous years, why are they permitted to anyone, anywhere, not only in Jerusalem or in purity?

The reason, as explained above, is that G-d’s purpose in creating the physical world is to make a home for Him in the lowest place. Each time we eat a food and bless G-d before taking a bite, and use the energy of that food to fuel our prayer and Torah study – we are sanctifying G-d and elevating that food to holiness. Not only the food, but also the dishes used to cook and serve it, the money used to buy it, the energy used to prepare it – all have become elevated to a source of holiness. Even more so when we invite hungry people to our home to share in that food – the entire experience of dining becomes a way of revealing G-d in this world.

The fruits of the fifth year, which can be eaten by anyone, anytime, underscore this aspect of Divine service – elevating the common, the mundane, to holiness, by using it for a holy purpose. When we sanctify G-d through every act we perform, throughout the day, we infuse our entire existence with holiness and transform the world into a dwelling place for G-d.

(Based on Likutei Sichot vol. 7, pp. 134-138)


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