Parashat Ki Tavo
Through rituals, blessings, and warnings the Children of Israel strengthen their connections to history, land, and God.
After their long journey to Jerusalem and joyous reception in Jerusalem, those bringing an offering would proclaim, "I have come to the Land which the Lord swore to our fathers to give to them," and then present their baskets to the priests, saying: " …..A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty and populous…" (Deuteronomy 26: 3-5).
This verse should sound familiar, for it's found in the Passover Haggadah and is a critical part of the narrative of the Exodus. Why are the same words used for offering first fruits and celebrating the leaving of Egypt? I suggest that there's no better time to remember where you came from, your family history and your roots, than when celebrating the harvest in the Land. In the intensity of the moment, it's so easy to lose sight of the historical perspective. This ritual, which is made possible because of our connection to the Land, becomes the more powerful when we remember our past wanderings.
Nechama Leibowitz points out that, just as in the Passover Haggadah, we learn that in "every generation every Jew is obliged to see him/herself as if s/he had gone out of Egypt," so at the time of the offering of the first fruits, "every generation is to also regard itself brought to the Land of Israel by G-d."
The ceremony concludes, "And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which You our Lord have given me" (Deuteronomy 26:10). Here again, the connection with the Land is being reestablished. The Land that G-d has given the people is bearing the fruit that is being delivered as an offering; their relationship with the land and G-d's role in their sustenance is being reinforced.
Concerning tithing--giving of the crops to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and to the widow--the Israelites are told to declare at the conclusion of this ritual: "[I have done] just as You commanded me: I have neither transgressed nor forgotten any of Your commandments" (Deuteronomy 26:13).
The 19th and early 20th century Torah interpreter and teacher known as the Sfas Emes (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger) asks: shouldn't it be clear that anyone who has obeyed the law hasn't forgotten it? Why is the text redundant? He explains that this reminds us that we shouldn't do things in a routine way, but rather that we should act with intent. Most of us can think of instances in our lives when we've engaged in an activity or conversation while our minds really were somewhere else. The Sfas Emes admonishes us to work against this.
The last specific item related to the settling of the land refers to the setting up of an altar of stones on Mount Ebal, the offering of sacrifices and the writing of the law on the stones. In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German scholar whom many consider the founder of modern Orthodoxy, points out that it is significant that this is the very first act of the Jewish people upon entering the Land.
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