Parshat Ki Tavo: Yaakov’s Tithe and Acts of Gratitude

“You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and numerous nation’” (Devarim 26:5).

The very name “Jew,” in Hebrew yehudi, implies gratitude. It is the matriarch Leah who first exemplifies the trait of gratitude by naming her and Yaakov’s fourth son Yehuda, from the word, hoda’ah, which means, “to thank.”

True gratitude is not only an attitude; true gratitude is expressed through action. And indeed, at the beginning of our parsha we read about the mitzvah of bikkurim, or the first fruits, which is an act of gratitude in the most profound sense. 

Every year the farmer brings the first fruits from the seven species to the Temple in Jerusalem. But he does not simply bring them and leave them; he must make a recitation upon arriving at the Temple. He first opens with an acknowledgment that the land from which these fruits grew was indeed the same land that was promised so many years ago to Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov.

The farmer does not stop there. In a text that we may be familiar with from the Passover Haggadah, he recites to the Cohen the entire concise history of the Nation of Israel:

“You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and numerous nation’” (Devarim 26:5).

He continues to tell the story of their bondage in Egypt, their miraculous escape, and the gift of the land of milk and honey. 

I can think of no other mitzvah which has such a ceremony. Why does the mitzvah of bikkurim have a recitation attached to it?

And even if there is a need to acknowledge that these fruits came from the land that God promised,  why do we tell the entirety of our story all the way back to Yaakov? What does Yaakov have to do with bikkurim?

One doesn’t simply stick a fruit tree in the ground and start harvesting fruit. Leaving aside the Torah’s agricultural laws about fruit trees, it takes six to ten years before a tree even starts to bear fruit. It is a long process that a transient person would never bother with. A fruit tree represents a long and lasting commitment to one particular piece of soil. Not only must the tree be rooted deeply in order to produce fruit, but the farmer too must have deep roots with that piece of land. This enduring relationship which he enjoys with the Land of Israel is acknowledged through the act of bringing bikkurim.

Yet the relationship that the farmer enjoys with his land is not in his story alone; this land has its own story, as does its people. An extra measure of gratitude is expressed when the farmer tells his national story, that he comes from a people who were enslaved in a foriegn land, and who were miraculously saved by God and brought to the promised land.

His experience of gratitude is increased even more by telling his story all the way back to his wandering father Yaakov, who never experienced the simple pleasure of harvesting fruit from his own tree. Yet here he, the simple farmer, stands surrounded by Cohanim and the songs of Levites in the Temple in the holy city of Jerusalem with fruit that he himself harvested from his piece of the promised land. 

But there is more to say about Yaakov’s connection to the mitzvah of bikkurim. As we read about bikkurim, The Ishbitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Moredechai Yosef Leiner, brings us back to Yaakov’s seminal moment, the dream of the ladder, and Yaakov’s vow to God. 

“Yaakov then made a vow, saying, ‘If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safely to my father’s house—the Lord shall be my God…and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You’” (Bereishit 28: 20-22).

The Ishbitzer Rebbe makes the connection between the tithe of bikkurim and the tithe that Yaakov promises to God as he flees from his brother Eisav’s murderous intentions. Yaakov does not only embody the attitude of gratitude, but he desires to actively give back that which he receives because he recognizes its source. 

The farmer’s telling of the story of Yaakov, with his basket of first fruits in front of him, reminds him, and all of us, that gratitude is not only about a feeling, or even just about saying thanks. The deepest and truest expression of gratitude is giving back to the source of our joy and abundance.

What do you think? Even though we don’t have the mitzvah of bikkurim today, what are some practical ways we can outwardly express our gratitude to Hashem and to our loved ones?

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Udren is the Co-Director of the RRG Beit Midrash at the Hebrew University Hillel, which offers Jewish educational programming for overseas and Israeli Hebrew University students from all backgrounds and denominations.
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