KI TAVO 5774
In lieu of a sermon this morning I’d like to study with you the Bikurim First Fruits ceremony found at the beginning of today’s Torah reading. Today’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, is one of the most crucial Torah portions because it has the Tochecha—98 frightening curses that will befall the Jewish people when they abandon Gd’s Torah. It’s so frightening the custom is to read these curses in a whisper. It’s almost as if we are saying that Gd shouldn’t pay too much attention to them—that these curses should not come upon us.
What does the mitzvah of the 1st fruits have to do with curses that follow? Immediately before the mitzvah of the First Fruits ceremony—at the end of last week’s Torah portion Ki Teytzey—we have the mitzvah to destroy Amalek wherever he raises his ugly head. Amalek attacked the Jewish people when they left Egypt from behind where the weakest were to be found. Amalek attacked for no reason. The Jews did not threaten him and they did not even approach his land. Amalek attacked simply because we were Jewish! It makes no sense. And yet, anti-Semitism never does.
What’s the connection between the mitzvah of the 1st fruits and Amalek? The mitzvah of the 1st fruits is to train us to be grateful for Gd’s gifts. The Talmud tells us that every time we are ungrateful to Gd he sends us Amalek to teach us a lesson. Gd is, in effect, saying, “If you disrespect Me, if you don’t appreciate what I do for you…Amalek will be on the way to attack you.”
The deeper teaching is that our gratitude is part of the reason Gd created us in the 1st place. Kabbalah teaches us that Gd created us to have an opportunity to display His goodness! If we don’t at least appreciate what Gd does for us, then He withdraws from us and doesn’t protect us. In Biblical times it was Amalek who attacks, today it will be the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah or Gd forbid, the Iranians. Gratitude to Gd is a powerful lesson as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
Let’s take a closer look at this Bikurim First Fruits ceremony. One would bring fruits from the 7 kinds of special fruits of the Holy Land mentioned by Gd in the Torah (Deut. 8:8) as being special to Israel: wheat, barley, wine, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. The fruits were brought in baskets to the Holy Temple. How much fruit was one required to bring? That was up to the farmer.
It wasn’t easy in those days making the trip to the Temple in Jerusalem. There were expanses of land that were uninhabited; the terrain was difficult; there were criminals on the way; and if one lived up in the north it took up to 10 days to get to Jerusalem by donkey. All this just for a basket of fruits!? Yes, that’s how important appreciation is to Gd!
Today you get into your car and travel on the highway and it takes just a few hours from the north to Jerusalem. If the Temple was rebuilt today, I suppose one might think that he could Fedex his 1st fruit basket—like a gift basket to the Temple. How much appreciation to Gd would $30 shipping costs and a box of fruits be? No, for the mitzvah of the 1st fruits one has to be there and present the fruits himself reciting a special declaration of appreciation that comes directly from the Torah—a declaration that anyone who ever attended a proper Seder on Passover is familiar with.
It’s fascinating that the text of that Bikurim declaration is the only one of our prayers that Gd Himself instructed the text to be recited. I guess Gd wanted to make sure we understood the point of bringing the Bikurim. Looking at this ceremony itself, it doesn’t seem like bringing baskets of fruits to a Koheyn is such an important mitzvah. Some of the Kohanim were rich and didn’t really need the baskets. They got the skins of the sacrifices which they could sell for leather or making tefilin. They got a steady stream of the maaseyr tithing of the crops. They got all the meat they and their families could eat from the sacrifices which must have been worth hundreds of dollars each day. They had special private doctors in the Temple to keep them healthy. It was very profitable to be a Koheyn. It was a good life. And so it doesn’t seem so important to bring a basket of fruits to a Koheyn.
Let me read you text of this declaration (Deut. 26:1-11). See if it sounds familiar: An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation—great, strong, and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to Hashem, the Gd of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail, and our oppression. Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness, and with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land, a Land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold! I have brought the 1st fruit of the ground that You have given me, O Hashem! And you shall lay it before Hashem your Gd, and you shall prostrate yourself before Hashem your Gd. You shall be glad with all the goodness that Hashem your Gd, has given you and your household—you and the Levite and the proselyte who is in your midst.
Do you recognize the text? Yes, it’s quoted in the Haggadah of Passover for reasons that will seem clear in a moment. What’s the connection between the mitzvah of First Fruitsand the text of the prayer? Let’s take a look.
Arami oveyd avi, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.” Who is this Aramean and who is the forefather? The Haggadah explains: Tzey ul’mad ma bikeysh Lavan haArami laasot l’Yaakov avinu, “Come and learn what Laban the Aramean tried to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban sought to destroy all.” The commentators ask, “What does the Haggadah mean when it indicates that Laban was worse than Pharaoh?” What did Laban do? He cheated Jacob into marrying Leah 1st when he only wanted Rachel. He also tried to cheat him out of his wages. How was this worse than Pharaoh who enslaved the Jewish people and killed Jewish babies? And what’s the connection between this and the baskets of fruit?
One answer is that Laban wanted to kill Jacob and that would have destroyed the whole Jewish nation.
Another explanation is that Joseph—born from Rachel—was supposed to be the 1st born. By deceiving Jacob into marrying Leah 1st, Laban created the situation of Leah’s son Reuven being the 1st born. And when Jacob favored Joseph because he was the 1st born of Rachel, it stirred the anger of his brothers. We all know the story of how the brothers then sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt and how they later followed because of a famine in the land. Long story short: because Laban deceived Jacob into marrying Leah, the Jewish people went down to Egypt and were almost destroyed. It jeopardized the Divine plan and Gd had to intervene with miracles to save them. That’s why the text of the Bikurim refers to the Exodus from Egypt and that’s why the Bikurim declaration is in the Haggadah.
The bringing the 1st fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem itself is a testimony of the end of the miracle of the Exodus—i.e. that we’re finally here in our land. How many times does the phrase, “I am Hashem your Gd Who took you out of the land of Egypt,” appear in the Torah? Dozens and dozens. It’s like if your father buys you a house and says to you, “Don’t forget it; I am your father who bought you your house.” After 20 times of saying this you’ll say to him, “Father, if I knew you would be reminding me every week that you bought us our home, we would have stayed in our small one bedroom apartment!”
Why does Gd repeat over and over again that He took us out of Egypt? To bring home the point that the only reason He took us out of Egypt is to be His children and have a covenant with Him. If you reject your covenant with Gd, then you don’t deserve to have been taken out of Egypt and you would have perished there. The only reason Gd performed all those miracles for us is so that we would become His children, love Him, appreciate Him and observe His Torah. That’s why so many of the mitzvot say they were given zeycheyr y’tziyat Mitzrayim, “in remembrance of the going out of Egypt”: matzah, tefillin, Shabbat, Sukkot, 4 species…again and again we mention in the Siddur the going out of Egypt.
What’s the lesson of the juxtaposition of the Bikurim 1st Fruits ceremony at the beginning of our Torah portion, the passage about Amalek at the end of last week’s Torah portion and the 98 curses at the end of today’s Torah portion? In one word: gratitude! The First Fruits ceremony represented a reminder of how Gd has blessed he who brought them and the special declaration he made was a confirmation of that. The curses are a reminder that if we ignore the special covenant Gd has made with us, if we abandon His Torah, then Gd will “hide His face” from us and terrible things may happen to us.
May our reading and study of this ceremony inspire us to appreciate all the wonderful blessings Gd has showered upon us so that we enter the New Year in a couple of weeks with a grateful heart. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis