The mitzva of bikkurim (bringing one’s first fruits to the Mikdash) is commonly understood as intended to express gratitude to Hashem for the successful yield He granted to His nation dwelling in His land. The Sefer Hachinuch writes this explicitly in mitzva 91.
Indeed, several halachot concerning this mitzva may very well reflect this underlying theme. Halacha states that one does not bring bikkurim from “the dates in the mountains, from the fruits in the valleys or from olives with oil that are not the choicest” (Bikkurim 1:3). In other words, one does not bring as bikkurim fruits of low quality. When we want to express thanks to Hashem for His kindness, we should present high-quality fruits that represent the high quality of the yield.
This is also one of the three reasons why one should not bring bikkurim after Chanukah, as these fruits constitute the low-quality leftovers, rather than the “reishit” – the first and best fruits, as required by the Torah. Furthermore, halacha requires (Bikkurim 1:6) decorating the bikkurim with other fruits, meaning, that one add other beautiful fruits in the bikkurim basket. This, too, supports the theory that bikkurim serves as an expression of thanksgiving, praising Hashem for the bountiful yield.
We have historical testimony (in Masechet Bikkurim) from that time period that “the wealthy ones would bring their bikkurim in baskets of silver and gold.” The wealthier farmers sought to add a further dimension to the beautification of their gift, to enhance their expression of gratitude to Hashem.
However, the Torah in Parashat Ki-Tavo informs us that a farmer bringing bikkurim must recite a text that begins with, “Arami oveid avi” – a reference to Avraham Avinu – and continues with the story of Benei Yisrael’s slavery in Egypt and ultimate redemption. What connection does this account have to the mitzva of bikkurim? Would it not have been more appropriate for the farmer to recite a text containing details of his agricultural work in the field and his sense of satisfaction over his successful produce?
The Rambam provides the following answer. When a farmer feels a sense of pride for his luscious fruits, this pride can result in his forgetting about the Master who gave them to him. Therefore, the Rambam explains, the farmer must recite this text so that he is reminded of who brought him to this point, by delivering him from Egypt, from slavery, and leading him into the land flowing with milk and honey, the land that produced for him his successful yield. Accordingly, it appears that no inherent connection exists between the account of Avraham Avinu and the story of the Egyptian bondage, and bikkurim. This account is intended merely to bring to mind at this time of joy the earlier periods of sorrow, with a clear educational purpose. In order to reinforce one’s faith and deepen his sense of gratitude, he must recall at his most joyous moments the times of hardship that have passed.
However, a closer look into the mitzva of bikkurim might bring us to a different approach to understanding its underlying reason. By bringing bikkurim, we thank Hashem not only for the quality fruits He has given us, but also, and primarily, for giving us the land and bringing us into it. We express our gratitude for the fact that we live in Eretz Yisrael, till the land and enjoy its fruit.
A quick review of the bikkurim section in Parashat Ki-Tavo reveals that it makes repeated reference to the land, Hashem’s giving us the land, our entry into the land, and God’s promise concerning the land. For example: “that you will bring from your land”; “that Hashem your God gives you”; “for I have entered the land that Hashem has promised to our forefathers to give to us” and so on. These are the key words of the parasha, and they indicate that the mitzva of bikkurim, though it requires bringing fruits to the Mikdash and brings blessing onto the fruits of the trees, expresses our gratitude not only for the produce, but also, and perhaps primarily, for the good land that Hashem has sworn to our forefathers to give to our people.