Many reasons are given for the mitzvah and the declaration that goes along with it. Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:39) writes that the mitzvah teaches us humility; even though we now have land and enjoy the fruits of our labor, we must always remember where we came from. In a similar vein the Torah constantly warns us to remember the fact that we were once slaves in Egypt. Remembering our humble beginnings, will ensure that we are grateful for all that we have received. According to the Rambam the goal of bikurim is to instill in us feelings of hakarat ha’tov, gratitude.
While the Rambam’s explanation is intriguing, it renders this mitzvah generic by grouping it together with all other mitzvot that pertain to firsts - the first shearings of sheep (reishit ha'geiz), the first kneadings of dough (challah), and trumah. Rabbi Menachem Zemba, a Polish Torah scholar, who was murdered by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, offers an alternative explanation. Rabbi Zemba writes in the name of the Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the Arizal, that the mitzvah of bikurim serves to counteract and atone for the chet ha’meraglim, the sin of the spies. Rabbi Zemba brings a proof from a Mishna in Masechet Bikurim (3:1)
Rabbi Zemba notes that the examples of fruits that the Mishna uses when describing how one declares his fruits to be bikurim are significant in light of a pasuk from the story of the sin of the spies (Bamidbar 13:23):כיצד מפרישין הבכורים יורד אדם בתוך שדהו ורואה תאנה שבכרה אשכול שביכר רמון שביכר קושרו בגמי ואומר הרי אלו בכורים
How does one separate bikurim? A person goes into their field and sees a fig that has just ripened, a cluster (of grapes) that has ripened, a pomegranate that has ripened, he ties it up and says, “these are bikurim”
ויכרתו משם זמורה ואשכול ענבים אחד...ומן הרמונים ומן התאניםAnd they cut from there a vine with one cluster of grapes...and of the pomegranates and of the figs
When Chazal decided to describe the way in which a person declares his fruit to be bikurim they used the fruits that the spies brought back from Eretz Yisrael to show the people. Rabbi Zemba writes that the author of the Mishna did this with full intent to show that there is a connection between bikurim and the chet ha’meraglim.
Rabbi Elchanan Samet (Iyunim L’Parashot Ha’Shavua Volume 1, pp. 398-399) provides further proof for the approach of the Arizal and Rabbi Zemba. He first notes the time of year in which the spies went on their mission (Bamidbar 13:20),
והימים ימי ביכורי ענבים
The days were the season of the first ripe grapes
Next he points out a number of linguistic parallels between the two parshiyot. When Moshe sent the spies on their mission he told them (Bamidbar 23:20),
while in the commandment to bring the bikurim to the Beit Hamikdash we are told (Devarim 26:2),ולקחתם מפרי הארץ
And you shall take from the fruits of the Land
ולקחת מראשית כל פרי האדמה אשר תביא מארצך
You shall take from the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your Land
More parallels can be found between the report of the spies and the mikra bikurim. The spies told the people (Bamidbar 13:27),
While in the mikra bikurim we say (Devarim 26:3)באנו אל הארץ אשר שלחתנו
We arrived at the Land to which you sent us
באתי אל הארץ אשר נשבע ה’ לאבותינו לתת לנו
I have arrived in the Land which Hashem swore to our forefathers that He would give us
Finally the spies described the land as being (Bamidbar 13:27)
While in the mikra bikurim we say (Devarim 26:9-10),וגם זבת חלב ודבש הוא וזה פריה
And it also flows with milk and honey and these are its fruits
ויתן לנו את הארץ הזאת ארץ זבת חלב ודבש. ועתה הנה הבאתי את ראשית פרי אדמהHe gave us this land, a Land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground...
In putting everything together and explaining the connection between the chet ha’meraglim and the mitzvah of bikurim, Rabbi Samet explains that the first encounter that Bnei Yisrael had with the fruits of the Land it was destined to inherit took place as part of the sin of the spies. In that case the fruits were brought from the Land to the desert, with the intent to delay our destiny and cause the people to seek a return to Egypt. Rashi (Bamidbar 13:23) explains that the spies did not bring the large fruits of the Land back to excite the people about the promising agricultural climate of their future homeland, but rather to dissuade them from continuing on their journey. They told the people that just like the fruits of the land were abnormally large, so too were the inhabitants of the Land. However when it comes to the mitzvah of bikurim, the fruits of Israel are brought from the four corners of the country inward, to the Beit Hamikdash, the heart of the Land. When everyone brought their fruits together, as one nation, to the Beit Hamikdash it was a unique experience, one that brought about a great sense of national pride and love for the Land. When a person reads the mikra bikurim and recounts the history of our people he expresses the fact that we overcame the trials and tribulations of psychological torment at the hands of Lavan, physical oppression in Egypt and the years of wandering in the desert to reach the Land we were destined to inherit. By expressing our love for the Land and our appreciation for what we had to go through in order to get it, we repair and atone for the chet ha’meraglim.