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Thursday, September 18, 2008
Parashat Ki Tavo
Haftara: Isaiah 60:1 – 22
Reading Date: 20th August 2008 – 20th Elul 5768
"When you come in to the land," opens the Parasha of Ki Tavo, "...You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the land... and put it in a basket; and you shall go to the place which the YHVH your G-d will choose to place His name there..."
Upon presenting the bikkurim ("first ripened fruits") at the Holy Temple, the farmer makes a declaration avowing his gratitude for all that YHVH has done for His people:
And you shall speak and say before YHVH your G-d:
An Arammian nomad was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us; and they laid upon us hard bondage.
And we cried to YHVH, the G-d of our fathers; and YHVH heard our voice, and He looked on our pain and our toil and our oppression.
And YHVH brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awe; and with signs, and with wonders.
And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which You, O YHVH, have given me.
And you shall set it before YHVH your G-d, and worship before the YHVH your G-d. And you shall rejoice in every good thing which YHVH your G-d has given you, and your household -- you and the Levite and the stranger that is among you.
Clearing the Tithes
The law of bikkurim is followed by the rules governing the separation of the various tithes the Jewish farmer sets aside from his crop (for the Levite, the poor, and for his own consumption in the holy city of Jerusalem. Every three years, any undistributed tithes must be "cleared from the house." Like the bringing of bikkurim, this, too, is accompanied with a "declaration":
When you have made an end of tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, which is the year of tithing; and you have given it the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within your gates, and be replete--
You shall then declare before YHVH your G-d:
I have removed the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them to the Levite, and to the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Your commandments which You have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, neither have I forgotten them.
I have not eaten of it in my mourning, neither have I consumed any part of it when unclean, nor given of it for the dead; but I have hearkened to the voice of YHVH my G-d, and have done according to all that You have commanded me.
Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel, and the land which You have given us, as You did swear to our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey.
This day YHVH your G-d has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall keep them and do them with all your heart, and with all your soul.
You have avouched YHVH this day to be your G-d, and to walk in His ways, and to keep His decrees, and His commandments, and His judgments, and to hearken to His voice.
And YHVH has avouched you this day to be a people for His own possession, as He has promised you; and that you should keep all His commandments.
And to make you high above all nations which He has made, in praise, and in name, and in glory; and that you be a holy people to YHVH your G-d, as He has spoken.
Inscribing the Torah
Moses then instructs the people on the particulars of the special "swearing in" ceremony -- mentioned earlier in the Parshah of Re'eh -- which they will conduct when they enter the Promised Land under the leadership of his disciple, Joshua.
A special altar, build from twelve stones (representing the 12 tribes of Israel) taken from the Jordan River, should be constructed on Mount Ebal; the stones should be plastered over, "And you shall write upon the stones all the words of this Torah very plainly."
The twelve tribes then divided into two groups: Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph and Benjamin positioned themselves on Mt. Gerizzim, while Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali faced them across the valley on the opposite Mt. Ebal. The blessings (for those who uphold the Torah) and courses (for those who violate it) were then pronounced -- the blessings upon Mt. Gerizzim, and the courses upon mount Ebal.
Reward and Rebuke
Moses proceeds to spell out the blessings of a life in harmony with the divine will:
And it shall come to pass, if you shall hearken diligently to the voice of YHVH your G-d, to observe and to do all His commandments which I command you this day; that YHVH your G-d will set you on high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall befall you, and overtake you, if you shall hearken to the voice of YHVH your G-d.
Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.
Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your beasts; the offspring increase of your cattle, and the young of your sheep.
Blessed shall be your basket and your store.
Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out.
YHVH shall cause your enemies that rise up against you to be smitten before your face; on one road shall they come out against you one way, and on seven roads shall they flee before you.
YHVH shall command the blessing upon you in your barns, and in all that you set your hand unto; and He shall bless you in the land which YHVH your G-d gives you.
YHVH shall establish you a holy people to Himself, as He has sworn to you; if you shall keep the commandments of YHVH your G-d, and walk in His ways.
And all people of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of YHVH; and they shall be afraid of you.
And YHVH shall make you plenteous in goods, in the fruit of your womb, and in the fruit of your cattle, and in the fruit of your soil, in the land which YHVH swore to your fathers to give you.
YHVH shall open to you His good treasure, the heaven, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand; and you shall lend to many nations, and you shall not borrow.
And YHVH shall make you the head, and not the tail; and you shall be above only, and you shall not be beneath; if you hearken to the commandments of YHVH your G-d, which I command you this day, to observe and to do them. And you shall not turn aside from any of the words which I command you this day, to the right hand, or to the left, to go after other gods to serve them.
The very opposite, however, shall come to pass, "if you will not hearken to the voice of YHVH your G-d, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command you this day. These curses shall come upon you, and overtake you: Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field...." and so on.
After spelling out the flip-side of the enumerated blessings, Moses launches into an even more detailed account (called The Rebuke) of the terrible calamities destined to befall the errant people -- ninety-eight "curses" in all, including the horrible scene (which came to pass during the siege of Jerusalem) of fathers and mothers eating the flesh of their children in their desperate hunger.
The Time of Recognition
And Moses called to all Israel, and said to them:
You have seen all that YHVH did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land. The great trials which your eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles.
Yet YHVH has not given you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, until this very day....
Keep the words of this covenant, and do them, that you may prosper in all that you do
 You shall take of the first of all the fruit of the land... (Deuteronomy 26:2)
Everything that is for the sake of YHVH should be of the best and most beautiful. When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his own dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed him of the best and sweetest of his table. When one clothes the naked, he should clothe him with the finest of his clothes. Whenever one designates something for a holy purpose, he should sanctify the finest of his possessions; as it is written (Leviticus 3:16), "The choicest to YHVH."
 You shall take of... the fruit of the land (26:2)
Not all fruits are subject to the mitzvah of bikkurim ("firstfruits") -- only those from the Seven Species [for which the land of Israel is praised]. Here, in our verse, it says the word eretz ("land"), and there (in Deuteronomy 8:8), it says, "A land of wheat and barley, vines and figs and pomegranates, a land of oil-producing olives and honey[-producing dates]." Just as the earlier verse (Deut. 8:8) is referring to the seven species through which Eretz Israel is praised, here too, the fruits of which the verse speaks are those with which the Land is praised.
 An Arammian nomad was my father... (26:5)
This phrase -- Arammi oved avi -- also translates as "The Arammian [sought to destroy] my father," and is interpreted as a reference to Laban the Arammite's attempts to harm Jacob. Thus we read in the Passover Haggaddah (which devotes several pages to commentary on the bikkurim declaration): "Go out and see what Laban the Arammite wanted to do to Jacob our Father! Pharaoh condemned only the males, while Laban wished to uproot all."
A number of interesting explanations are proposed by the various commentaries as to when and how Laban endeavored to destroy the people of Israel. The most basic explanation is that it refers to his desire to compel Jacob to remain with him in Charan, or at least leave his wives and 11 sons there, claiming (Genesis 31:43), "The daughters [i.e., Leah and Rachel] are my daughters, the sons are my sons, the flocks are my flocks, and all that you see is mine..." Another explanation is that it refers to his plot to poison Eliezer and thus prevent Rebecca's marriage to Isaac (in which case Jacob would never have been born. -- see the account of Eliezer's mission to Charan in the Parshah of Chayei Sarah). Yet another thesis is that it was Laban's deception of Jacob in marrying him first to Leah, instead of Jacob's chosen bride Rachel which created the situation in which Jacob regarded Joseph as his true first born and the leader amongst his sons, when, in truth, the leadership belonged to Leah's children. This led to the tragic schism which rent the people of Israel in two for much of their history.
 This day you have become a people (27:9)
The people of Israel are unique among the peoples of the world: their nationhood was forged not at the point at which they gained their own land, or developed a common language or culture, but on the day on which they pledged to uphold the Torah...
(Rabbi Samson Rephael Hirsch)
 Blessed be you in the city, and blessed be you in the field... (28:3)
In other words, don't be "a tzaddik in a fur coat"; rather, your goodness should influence your surroundings, in the "city" and the "field."
(There are two ways to get warm on a cold winter day -- build a fire, which warms everyone else in the room as well, or wrap yourself in furs, which conserves your own warmth but does not generate any heat or warm anyone else. Thus Chassidim would refer to a righteous person whose only concern is with his own righteousness as "a tzaddik in a fur coat.")
(Rabbi Bunim of Peshischa)