Parashat Ki Tavo – The Fruit of Exile

Parashat Ki Tavo begins with the description of the ritual whereby the Israelite farmer brings the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple in Jerusalem.

And it will be, when you come into the land which the Eternal, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it, that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Eternal, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which the Eternal, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. וְהָיָה֙ כִּֽי־תָב֣וֹא אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר֙ ה’ אֱלֹ-הֶ֔יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֖ נַֽחֲלָ֑ה וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֖הּ וְיָשַׁ֥בְתָּ בָּֽהּ: וְלָֽקַחְתָּ֞ מֵֽרֵאשִׁ֣ית כָּל־פְּרִ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר תָּבִ֧יא מֵֽאַרְצְךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֨ר ה’ אֱלֹ-הֶ֛יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָ֖ךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ֣ בַטֶּ֑נֶא וְהָֽלַכְתָּ֙ אֶל־הַמָּק֔וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר יִבְחַר֙ ה’ אֱלֹ-הֶ֔יךָ לְשַׁכֵּ֥ן שְׁמ֖וֹ שָֽׁם:

Upon giving his offering to the priest, the farmer recounts the nation’s history in first person: “My father was a wandering Aramean…”  The narrative goes on to tell of the enslavement of Egypt and the miraculous deliverance, culminating in “[God] brought us to this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”. It is a story of the harvest of history, and how the seeds of the past bear fruit undreamed of in an unforeseeable future.

But the second half of Parashat Ki Tavo tells a different story—a story of devastation and suffering, the utter desolation of being forsaken by God and left to the mercies of a merciless enemy. It is a story that we have seen come true in every detail in the lifetimes of many still alive today. If we were to read the parasha in isolation, without continuing on to the next one, we would be left in despair. There is no happy ending, no light at the end of the tunnel.

The later part of Parashat Ki Tavo makes very clear, in explicit detail, what will happen when we don’t—or can’t—live up to the terms of the Covenant laid out in the previous parshiot. Particularly chilling is that there is only a hint of “if” in all this. The previous parshiot emphasized again and again that the fortunes of the nation hang upon the free choice of each and ever individual. And yet in Ki Tavo, the unfolding of the curses is presented as all but inevitable:

When (not if) all this has come upon you, the blessing and the curse…”

Why then were we presented with a test that we could not pass? But differently: why were the past two thousand years necessary?

Perhaps because the real lesson was the curse, not the blessing. Maybe the real foundation or our nation required these generations of exile and transformation. We may never know the answer, simply because the question is too big for any single answer. But it’s no surprise that many modern parshanim see these verses as a prophetic glimpse of the Shoah.

This may be the point of ending the parasha at such a juncture, with the devastation seemingly so complete that no rebuilding can be hoped for. So it may have seemed in the darkest days of the Egyptian enslavement. And yet, the recital of that history under the sunlit skies of Jerusalem carries little memory of the darkness. The Israelite farmer offering the first fruits of a successful harvest has no memory of enslavement, even as he recounts his nation’s history as if he himself had lived through it.

There is a lesson here in how we should view our long history—it has purpose and meaning.  It wasn’t for nothing. Everything we have gone through has paved the way, allowing us to see the fruit of our long exile blossoming under the Mediterranean sun. This is the harvest of all our trials and pain.

This is how we should read the second part of Ki Tavo: the curses will have to be lived through in all their horrible reality. And yet, this reality will bear fruit. We can’t help but weep as we carry the seeds of our past. And yet, we can still hope to harvest the fruit of our tears.

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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