Parashat Ki Tavo

Ritual Reinforcement

Through rituals, blessings, and warnings the Children of Israel strengthen their connections to history, land, and God.

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For most individuals, transitions from one life stage to another present both opportunities and challenges. Imagine what they are like when applied to the life-stages of a people. This week's parashah, Ki Tavo, continues the people's preparation for changing from the state of wandering to that of being settled on the land. Ritual is created to cement this transition and to remind us of our current and former conditions.

Ki Tavo contains three major segments that continue the review of the law that Moses began in Ki Tetze. First, he tells the Jewish people that when they enter and settle the land, they are to bring the first fruits as sacrifices and details the ceremony for doing so. Then, he reviews the system of tithing for the poor. Finally, he details the procedures for crossing the Jordan and for establishing their and G-d's presence by building an altar and by writing the law on stones. The entire remainder of Ki Tavo is spent on the consequences of following or ignoring the laws--the blessings and the curses that would result. We read:

"And it shall come to pass when you will come in unto the land which the Lord your G-d gives you for an inheritance, and possess it and dwell in it; That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring in from the land that the Lord your G-d gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place His name there…" (Deuteronomy 26: 1-2).

Giving First Fruits

Why were the Israelites commanded to give to G-d their first fruits? Imagine that you have wandered in the desert for forty years, battled for your survival, and established a new home. Finally, when the crops are ready, you are told to put off a bit longer from partaking of them so as to give up the very best as an offering. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides states that this is because "the first of everything is to be devoted to the Lord; and by doing so we accustom ourselves … to limit our appetites for eating and our desire for property."

As Nechama Leibowitz, the late Israeli Bible commentator, points out, the Akedat Yitzhak (15th century work by the Spanish philosopher and commentator Isaac Arama) suggests that the first fruits were offered to act as a constant reminder that "the earth is the Lord's….everything is a gift bestowed by G-d and G-d is responsible for all prosperity--therefore, with the bringing of the first fruits, we acknowledge the Divine overlordship."

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Lyn Light Geller is the Educational Coordinator of United Jewish Federation of Jewish Philanthropies.