Tehilla Helfenbaum and Dan Jutan: Blessings, Curses, Fruits (Ki Tavo)

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Tehilla Helfenbaum spent two years learning Talmud at Amudim. She now studies religion and philosophy at the University of Toronto.

Dan Jutan is the co-founder and Student Coordinator of the College Beit Midrash of Atlanta. He learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion and currently studies computational media and researches in the Digital Humanities at Georgia Tech.

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with a commandment that is to apply when the nation gets to the land of Israel: the commandment to bring bikkurim, first fruits, to the Temple:

  1. When you enter the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it,
  2. you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Hashem your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where Hashem your God will choose to establish His name.
  3. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the LORD your God that I have entered the land that Hashem swore to our fathers to assign us.”
  4. The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of Hashem your God.

This mitzvah is framed by references to the Land of Israel. The first verse introduces the mitzvah with reference to the Land of Israel, the first and only place this mitzvah can be performed (see the first Rashi). The second verse stresses not that the fruits are first but that they are harvested from the land that Hashem your God is giving you. The third verse tells of how one must introduce his giving of the fruits before a Kohen: by acknowledging one’s presence in the Land.

The Agricultural mitzvot are central to living in the Land of Israel. Rashi explains that the first fruits don’t refer to all fruits, but only seven particular fruits. These fruits are not chosen arbitrarily, but are the seven fruits referenced in a verse praising the land of Israel; they are, as Rashi puts it, the seven species through which the Land of Israel is praised. (שִׁבְעַת הַמִּינִים שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּבְּחָה בָהֶן אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל). These fruits have a unique association with the land, and it is these fruits that we bring in the offering of bikkurim.

The mitzva of bikkurim is not finished when the priest puts the basket by the alter. When we bring fruit to the Temple, we are asked to say a special declaration that makes it even more clear that these first fruits are an acknowledgement of God’s blessing and a recognition that our bounty is a gift from God. It summarizes the history of our people, including our forefather’s exile and God’s saving us to bless us and give us the land.

5. You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.

6. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.

7. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.

8. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents.

9. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

10. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.” You shall leave it before the LORD your God and bow low before the LORD your God.

Only once this recognition is declared, verbally and through the gifts of the first fruits, may we enjoy of the rest of the fruit we have harvest.11. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household.This particular passage bears additional significance. It is the key passage we use to retell our story at the Passover Seder, as the Mishna (Pesachim 116a) instructs:

MISHNA: The attendants poured the second cup for the leader of the seder, and here the son asks his father the questions about the differences between Passover night and a regular night. And if the son does not have the intelligence to ask questions on his own, his father teaches him the questions. . . . And according to the intelligence and the ability of the son, his father teaches him about the Exodus. When teaching his son about the Exodus. He begins with the Jewish people’s disgrace and concludes with their glory. And he expounds from the passage: “An Aramean tried to destroy my father”, the declaration one recites when presenting his first fruits at the Temple, until he concludes explaining the entire section.

Why is the passage recited by bringers of bikkurim also recited at the seder table? What is the significance of this particular passage (Devarim 26:5-10)?

To answer this, we’d like to explore a later part of this week’s parasha. In Devarim 28, Moshe explains what will happen if the people follow God’s commands. We’ll be blessed, established as a holy people, we’ll have all the rain we need, and we’ll be the head, not the tail.

Then, Moshe explains the flip side of a coin. What happens if we fail? We’ll be cursed, in all sorts of ways. “Calamity, panic, and frustration” will be let loose against us. The skies will be like copper, the ground like iron, and our sons and daughters will be taken away to other nations. Over the course of fifty verses, Moshe paints a picture of chaos, pain, and destruction that will ensue if we don’t follow the law.

While reading this part of the parasha, we noticed something peculiar: some of these verses seemed to mirror the declaration of the bikkurim!

When we examine the berakhot and klalot (the blessings and the curses), we see several themes in common with the bikkurim passage. At the basic level, the declaration of the bikkurim allow us to acknowledge and appreciate the Godly source of our bounty and our land, and so it seems appropriate that the brakhot–which assure us that God will give us this land–and the klalot–which detail how we won’t get the land, have themes and languages in common.

For each verse describing the commandment of bikkurim and its declaration, we found parallel verses in the klalot that describe the same idea, but in the negative. Bikkurim applies when God gives us the land (26:1); the klalot (28:21) describe how God takes that away. The bikkurim are given from the “fruits of the ground” which are “placed in a basket” (26:2) ; the klalot (28:17-18) curse the basket and the fruits of the ground. While the bikkurim highlight our coming to the “land that Hashem our God swore to our forefathers(26:3), the klalot stress our serving of other Gods that our forefathers did not know (28:64). God once brought us out of Egypt “with signs and wonders” (26:7). In the worst-case future, it is our curses that serve as “signs and wonders” (28:46).

Interestingly, the declaration of the bikkurim has us recalling our past: we came down to Egypt as a “scant few” (bimtei m’at; 26:4) before we became a great nation. The klalot parallel that language of our past to describe our grim future: “you shall be left a scant few” (28:62). Similarly, in the bikkurim we recount how God took us out of Egypt (26:7). But in the dystopian vision of the klalot, God brings us right back. (28:68).

The one part of the bikkurim declaration that does not have a parallel in the klalot is the fact that we cried out to God, and God heard, leading Him to take us out of Egypt (28:6-7). Following in the pattern of the inverse parallels that we’ve identified, we’d expect the klalot to mirror this in the opposite, perhaps telling us that God will not hear our cry. But across the dozens of verses in the klalot, no such statement is present.

We think this is telling. The lack of mention of god ignoring us in the klalot seems to point out that God can’t ignore us. If we cry out, acknowledging that we did wrong, this is a form of repentance that puts us back on the path for blessing, no matter our current status.This reminds us that our voice is extremely powerful. It defines who we are and is an effective vehicle for communicating with God. And as the bikkurim declaration exemplifies, our voice helps us tell our story.

This is why we use this passage on Passover–so that everyone can relive our collective story. We use the passage to remind us of the origins of our great nation. But it also reminds us that no matter what, we are always part of that story. God moves with us through history. He may send us into exile, but he also grants us with the blessings of the Land and its fruit. Both the positive and the negative make us who we are and inform our story.

God does not forget us. When we cry, God hears.

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