16 Elul 5780 September 4, 2020
Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the mitzvah of bikkurim, bringing “first fruits, and closes near the end with the commandment to “walk in God’s ways.” In-between these two injunctions is the terrifying promise of the tochekha, the accursed consequences of abandoning the covenant with Hashem. I would like to share some thoughts about the framework of the parasha, and how its structure informs a way of interpreting the text.
The bringing of first fruits requires a public declaration in front of the Kohen:
My ancestor, Ya’akov, was a wandering Aramean. (His uncle, Lavan, tried to kill him.) He went down to Egypt with a small number of people and lived there as an immigrant. There, my ancestors multiplied into a great group of many people. The Egyptians became cruel to us [as immigrants] and they took advantage of us and turned us into slaves and servants. They made us suffer greatly. So we cried out to Hashem. God remembered the promise and the covenant to Avraham, saw our suffering, and brought us out of Egypt with many miracles and signs, with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Hashem brought us all the way through the wilderness to this promised land. This land is flowing with abundance, so now I am bringing the first fruits of my harvest back to God, in this mikdash, and giving them to the Kohanim. I do this because of everything God has generously given me. (Devarim 26:1-8)
This is an astounding ritual. It is so powerful, in fact, that the rabbis incorporated the body of this declaration in the Haggadah for the seder on Pesach, as the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt. They did that not only because this is a synoptic version of that long narrative. We Jews live with a dual-identity. We live in the world as a minority and as a majority, and empowered and dis-empowered, as strong and as vulnerable, as at-home and as in-exile. The mitzvah of first-fruits requires us to remain conscious of this duality at all times. We are being commanded to bring a mind-set of humility and gratitude to wherever and however we live. This declaration re-traces the arc of our spiritual journey from abused immigrants through a wilderness of opportunity and connection to God without distractions to a promised land of empowerment and self-rule as the majority culture. We are enjoined to remain humble and grateful when we live at the mercy of others, and humble and grateful even when, or especially when, others depend upon us. Our current predicament as Jews, of course, underscores the challenge and irony of this mitzvah, since Jews in America have largely stopped yearning to return to the land of Israel. Instead, despite what anyone might say out loud, we remain in the diaspora and assume, indeed expect, full integration and at-homeness even as a small minority. The Torah ironically and powerfully challenges us with the implications for the black lives matter movement and the position that immigrants find themselves in currently. Jews expect to be treated as insiders; others cannot share that same expectation. The Torah admonishes and directs us here never to live comfortably with that assumption, and to always remember that our identity is tied to the experiences of being abused as immigrants, foreigners, and slaves.
The Sefer HaChinuch is clear that the purpose of this mitzvah is to arouse consciousness by articulating, in words, a memory and consciousness of our past formative experiences:
It is from the root of the commandment [that it is] since a man arouses his thoughts and draws the truth in his heart with the power of the words of his mouth. Therefore, in that God did good to him, and in that God blessed him and his land to bear fruits, and he merited to bring the fruits to the House of our God; it is appropriate for him to arouse his heart with the words of his mouth and ponder that everything arrived to him from the Master of the universe, and he recount God’s kindnesses, may God be blessed, upon us and upon the people of Israel, more generally. Therefore, he begins with the subject of Yaakov, our father, whom God rescued from the hand of Lavan, and the subject of the slavery of the Egyptians over us and God’s, blessed be Hashem, rescuing us from their hand. And following the praise, he requests from God to eternally bestow the blessing on him. And from the arousal of his soul with the praise of God and His goodness, he will merit that his land be blessed. Therefore, God commanded us about this, since God desires kindness.
The key phrase is the final line: “…since God desires kindness.” No matter the conditions under which Jews live, we are commanded to bring our past experiences into consciousness to make certain that Jews never forget the source of our well-being, and see every human being as an image of God.
This central theme, that Jews–even when disenfranchised as a minority, and certainly when empowered as a majority culture–are commanded to dignify all human beings, is reinforced at the closing of the parasha. There, Moshe teaches us to “walk in God’s ways.” The ancient rabbis noted the impossibility of taking this commandment literally. After all, the rabbis said, “God can be an all-consuming fire; how would we survive?!” Again, the Sefer HaChinuch explains:
The commandment to walk in – and make oneself similar through – the ways of God, may He be blessed: That we were commanded to perform all our actions in the way of straightness and goodness with all our strength and to incline all our affairs that are between ourselves and others towards the way of kindness and mercy; as we have known from our holy Torah that this is the way of God, and this is God’s desire for His creatures so that they merit God’s goodness – as He desires kindness….Just like the Holy One, blessed be He, is called merciful, so too you be merciful; just like the Holy One, blessed be He, is called compassionate, so too you be compassionate; just like the Holy One, blessed be He, is called righteous, so too you be righteous; just like the Holy One, blessed be He, is called holy, so too you be holy.” And the whole matter is to say that we should teach ourselves to follow good actions like these and glorious traits through which He, may He be blessed, is described by way of analogy – to say that He acts with these good traits towards His creatures….
One can act on this general sensibility of kindness and compassion in many ways. Just as God visited our patriarch, Avraham, when he was healing, so too, should we visit the sick. Just as God buried Moshe, so too, should we care for the deceased, and console the mourner, and feed the hungry, and clothing the naked, and provide for the poor. The universal language of the Sefer HaChinuch is striking. These are obligations for the Jewish people–indeed, a Jewish identity requires acting on the sensibility of compassion and kindness. However, the language of the recipients is universal: the Sefer HaChinuch, echoing the ancient rabbis, wrote in terms of “all of God’s creatures.” In this regard, the parasha moves from a particularistic perspective to a universal mandate. Our concrete, lived historical experiences of suffering, tragedy, catastrophe, disempowerment, anxiety, and abuse require us as a Jewish people to make certain that we absolutely never negate the analogous historical experiences of other peoples, and absolutely never participate in perpetuating the abuse of others, and indeed, work towards their healing and humanization. If we forget this mandate, Moshe describes, in horrific detail in the tochekha portion of this parasha, what will befall us. Our task remains, no matter how daunting, and especially as we prepare for Rosh HaShannah, to perfect the world in an image of God’s sovereignty. Our task remains to rid the world of all idolatrous, abusive, racist attitudes and behavior, so that all humanity recognizes the goodness and compassion of the Creator of all life.