Saturday, September 20, 2008

Ki Tavo (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at September 2006. Our apologies that the promised supplement on marriage law is not yet ready.

“And you shall take the first fruits of your land…”

A few weeks ago (HY IX: Ekev) we talked about the motif of gratitude, of acknowledging that all that we have is a gift from God, as an essential part of the religious attitude to life—an attitude expressed in the various blessings we make throughout the day, and throughout life, and quintessentially through Birkat ha-Mazon, the Grace After Meals.

This idea is raised to a higher level in a series of commandments in which we give the first portion of each thing to God: the first born of flock and herd; the first proper harvest of fruit from a newly planted tree; the first shearing of sheep; the first portion of field crops and threshing floor; and, in this week’s parashah, the first fruits of each season, which were ceremoniously brought up to the Temple. Even the first born of human beings is in theory holy to God, and must be redeemed; before the sanctification of the tribe of Levi, the first born were indeed set apart for priestly lives (is a remnant of this idea perhaps found in the sanctification from the womb of Shimshon and of Shmuel?). The essential idea is, in a sense, like that underlying the blessings we say: that everything is the universe belongs to God, and that we symbolically acknowledge this by offering the first part to Him in reality, as a kind of sacred tax.

There is a deceptively simple saying of Hazal that may tie these two ideas together: “One verse says, ‘The earth and all therein belongs to the Lord’ [Ps 24:1], and another says, ‘The heavens belong to the Lord, but the earth He has given to human beings’ [Ps 115]. How so? Here before he has recited a blessing; there after a blessing.” Perhaps one might say: both blessing and the gift of “firsts” are a kind of “payment,” a way of acknowledging God’s ultimate “ownership” of the whole world.

But there is also a second aspect to the first fruits ritual. The farmer is told to take the first fruits of the new season (significantly, and symbolically, the first fruits are only of the seven species of fruit for which Eretz Yisrael is especially noted, as listed in Deut 8:8), to place them in a basket, and bring them up to the Temple, where they are given to the priest. But the one bringing the bikkurim, the first fruit, then recites a text called the “Confession over First Fruits” (Viduy Bikkurim), which isn’t really a confession at all, but a succinct recapitulation of the history of the Israelite people: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt… and they treated us badly and afflicted us, and placed upon us harsh servitude… and God took us out of there with a strong arm… and brought us to this place… So now, I have brought the first fruits of the land to You, O Lord.” (Interestingly, this same text forms the basis for the central section of the Passover Haggadah)

What lies behind this recitation? The basic idea is to show how a seemingly simple thing, like harvesting and enjoying the fruits growing on one’s own property, which most people take for granted, is in fact the end point of a long history. We wrote earlier this summer about the meaning of history in Jewish consciousness. This is another example: the Torah seems to use almost every available opportunity to impress upon people, not only such basic religious messages as the reality of God, the need to love and fear Him and to cultivate a sense of gratitude towards Him for our very lives, but also a sense of history. Specific, concrete events in our lives as individuals, our being here today, in this place and this situation, is in fact part of a long historical continuum, which has its own logic and meaning. We enjoy these grapes and figs and the bread baked from this wheat, only because God has took our forefathers out of Egypt, and brought them to this good and abundant land.


Post a Comment

<< Home