Step-by-Step Instructions

Words serve a purpose. Nothing in the Torah is superfluous. So when I notice the repeated use of a word that tells me something seemingly unnecessary, I take that as a challenge to find the deeper meaning.

The Torah portion, Ki Tavo, starts by describing the laws of bikkurim, which are the procedures for bringing the first fruits to the Priests in the Temple. But the description seems superfluous. We are commanded to place our fruits into a “basket,” and then we are told that when we get to the Temple, the priest will take our “basket” from our hand.

Really? How many container choices existed in the ancient world that would permit a person to transport fruit a long distance? And do I need to be told to “put my fruits in a basket and then hand the basket to the priest in the Temple?” How is this meaningful, and what relevance does this have to my life today?

Signature Strengths

While the Land of Israel produces numerous fruits and vegetables, only the seven species for which the Land of Israel is specifically praised for in the Torah are brought to the Temple. Israel is “a land of wheat, barley, grapevines, figs and pomegranates; a land of oil olives and date honey.” Kabbalistic sources equate the seven different species of the Land to the seven middot, or soul characteristics. You could say that mystically, these seven species are what some call the “signature strengths” of the Land of Israel.

Similarly, perhaps we can extrapolate from this, that we all have certain positive traits, qualities and abilities. There is a subset of these attributes, however, known as our “Signature Strengths” that are our unique combination of abilities that when utilized, empower us to make our lives happier, more meaningful and fulfilled. These strengths are those positive aspects of ourselves that we are in our bones that which can’t really be any other way. As fundamental to our core as they are, however, we don’t always know what these strengths are; therefore, they can be underutilized.

Examples of signature strengths are: bravery, creativity, curiosity, love of learning, forgiveness, teamwork, perspective, fairness, zest, social intelligence, humility, honesty, etc. We all have these strengths, just in different amounts, some coming more naturally to us and others requiring more effort.

Yet merely knowing your “Signature Strengths” is not enough. You have to be conscious and deliberate about it. When the farmer went into his fields and noticed the first buds to break, the first flower blossoms and then the emerging fruit, he tied a cord around the fruit and proclaimed that it was designated as a first fruit to be brought to the Temple. Otherwise, how could he know which fruits were which when he was harvesting? So we have to notice, pay attention and honor our strengths so as to draw on them.

As for a basket, which is lightweight, has holes for ventilation and allows the fruit to lie in it without getting bruised, we have to “carry” our strengths in a way that they are properly nurtured and used. All strengths have a flip side that is a weakness. For example, one of my strengths is creativity, but I am quickly bored by what I have to do to implement my ideas. Leadership is a strength, but it can also disempower others. Kindness is a strength, but it can also enable dysfunction and blind us to problems.

Utilizing strengths to accomplish goals and develop resilience is a powerful act. But we must be conscious and bounded so as not to use our strengths in a way that hurts us and others.

When we hand the basket to the priest, who takes it from our hand, the idea is that we are using our strengths in the service of others, in connection with something bigger than ourselves and as part of our relationship to G‑d. Then it becomes an act of transcendence, which gives our lives deeper meaning, fulfillment and purpose. It’s the difference between being self-serving and serving God.

And that’s the essence of bikkurim—to understand that everything we have is from G‑d. Your strengths are a gift from G‑d to you. But how you use them is your gift back to G‑d. What are your first fruits, and are you carrying them well?

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write a list of your five top strengths. How are you tapping into these strengths in your day-to-day life? What can you be doing to utilize them more?
  2. What are your weaknesses? How can you use the strengths you just listed to help overcome or transform your weaknesses?
  3. What are the pitfalls of your strengths? What are you doing to ensure that they remain positive, and that you don’t cave into their destructive powers? Write a “thank you” note for these gifts and for the strength to utilize them in the proper way.