KI TAVO 5776
Today’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, is one of the most vital Torah portions because it contains the Tochecha—98 frightening curses that will befall the Jewish people if 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’re saying, “Gd don’t pay much attention to them. Let not these curses should come upon us.”
The Torah portion actually begins with the Bikurim 1st Fruits ceremony. Farmers in ancient Israel were required to bring their 1st fruits in baskets to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. 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. There were expanses of land that were uninhabited; the terrain was difficult; there were criminals on the way; and if one lived in the north it could take up to 10 days to get there with your donkey. All this just for a basket of fruits? No, it wasn’t the fruits that were important, but the show of appreciation to Gd.
Today you can get into a car and travel from the north on Israel’s modern highways and in just a few hours be in Jerusalem. When the Temple will be rebuilt—may it be speedily in our day—I suppose one might think that he could Fedex his 1st fruit basket like the gift baskets we send today. But how much appreciation would $30 of shipping costs 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 from today’s parsha—a declaration that anyone who ever attended a Seder on Passover is familiar with for it’s repeated in the Haggadah.
So today’s Torah portion begins with appreciation and gratitude. Since we read this portion just a little more than a week before Rosh Hashanah, let me do an appreciation exercise with you. Think of 3 things for which you are grateful. Now think of 3 more things. Now 3 more. Were you able to come up with 9 things? Could you list 18 things for which you are grateful?
If each of us took a moment every morning to list 18 things for which we are grateful, how might that color our day? Would we smile more? Have more patience with our kids or our co-workers? Would we feel happier? More satisfied? Might we make different decisions, perhaps more generous decisions, about how we use our time or spend our resources? What if we listed those things at night before we went to bed? Would we sleep better and be more rested in the morning?
There’s actually some hard science supporting this. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that…people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits including stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure; higher levels of positive emotions; more joy, optimism, and happiness; acting with more generosity and compassion; and feeling less lonely and isolated.
The findings led UC Berkeley and Davis researchers to join forces to find more ways to promote gratitude in society. All this science just confirms what our sages taught thousands of years ago from the Bikurim 1st fruits thanksgiving declaration in this morning’s parsha (Deut. 26:5-10) Let me read it to you:
An Aramean tried to destroy my father. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a nation—great, strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to Hashem, the Gd of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our plea and saw our affliction, our misery and our oppression. Hashem took us out from Egypt by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the 1st fruits of the soil which You Hashem have given me...
Did you notice how many specific statements of gratitude are included in this declaration of appreciation? I count 9: that Gd made our ancestors great and numerous; heard their cry; freed them from Egypt and did so with great wonders; brought them to this place; gave them the land; made it a plentiful land; and provided these 1st fruits.
Why did Gd have to command that we make this declaration? Because it’s human nature to take for granted what we have. We have to be trained to be grateful—even if being grateful is not only polite, but life affirming as researchers have discovered and our sages knew all along.
Our sages prescribed that we should offer 100 blessings of appreciation every day. Every time we’re about to eat or drink, even water, we must thank Gd. We begin our Shacharit morning service with a series of blessings thanking Gd for our intelligence, our sight, our freedom, our ability to stand up, and our ability to withstand whatever burdens have been placed upon us. There’s even a prayer to be recited after going to the bathroom in thankfulness that our internal plumbing is functioning. Speaking of an attitude of gratitude!
The question for our Torah portion is: why does this passage of showing gratitude precede the Tochecha—the 98 frightening curses that will befall the Jewish people if they abandon Gd’s Torah?
To find the answer, we must look at the text of the Torah immediately preceding the 1st Fruits ceremony. It’s the command at the very end of last week’s parsha 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 didn’t threaten them or approach their 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…Gd sends us an Amalek to teach us a lesson. He 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.” In Biblical times it was Amalek who attacks, today it will be the Palestinians, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS or Gd forbid, the nuclear Iran. Gratitude to Gd is a powerful lesson as we approach Rosh Hashanah.
Again, what’s the lesson of the juxtaposition of the Bikurim 1st Fruits ceremony at the beginning of our Torah portion, sandwiched between 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 a word: gratitude! Amalek and the curses are a reminder that if we are ungrateful and ignore the special covenant Gd has made with us, then Gd will ignore us and “hide His face” from us and terrible things can then happen.
A college professor once gave his students a pop quiz. He distributed to each a blank piece of paper with a small black dot in the middle. He then asked the students to write down what they see on the paper. Without fail, every student wrote that he sees a black dot. The professor then said: Not one of you wrote that you see a white sheet of paper. You all only saw a small black circle…We have so many beautiful things in life—love, happiness, causes we believe in, friends, our jobs and miracles happening around us every day—but we seem to get stuck focusing on the black dot, how our financial situation isn’t great, our relationships are lacking etc…Open your eyes, don’t focus on the black dots of life. Instead, focus on the white paper, all the good you have going for you.
May our reading and study of the Bikurim 1st Fruits ceremony today inspire us to appreciate all the wonderful blessings Gd has showered upon us so that we enter the New Year next week with a grateful heart. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis