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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Ki Tavo

Parshat Ki Tavo

Bikurim - a Lesson for the Year

The Declaration of the First-Fruits Man learns from this Mitzvah a lesson to be carried with him for the whole year - that it's not enough to thank God for personal good fortune and success…
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Dedicated to the memory of
R. Avraham Ben David
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1. Bringing and Reciting
2. Asking Questions
3. Getting Answers

Bringing and Reciting
Our weekly Torah portion, Ki Thavo , opens with the commandment to bring first-fruits to the Sanctuary:
"You shall take the first of every fruit of the earth produced by the land that God your Lord gives you. You must place it in a basket, and go to the site that God will choose as the place to be associated with His name."

Rashi , in the footsteps of the sages of the Mishna , explains that when one goes down to his field and sees for the first time that year a fig which has ripened, he is to tie a piece of straw around it as an indication and say: "This, then, is Bikkurim (first-fruits)."

As soon as this has been done one becomes obligated to bring the Bikkurim to God's Temple in Jerusalem, and to have them waved by the Cohen (priest) officiating at that time. Yet at this point the Scriptures introduce an additional commandment - Mikrah Bikkurim , the recital over the first-fruits. That is, the one who brings the first fruits to the Temple is obligated to recite verses from the Torah while the Bikkurim are being waved and placed before the alter.
The following is what the one who brings the first-fruits recites:
"An Aramaean attempted to destroy my father. Then he went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, yet it was there that he became a great, powerful, and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery upon us. We cried out to God, Lord of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress.
"God then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great visions and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this place, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that God has given me."


Let us, before embarking on a thorough examination of the above passage, take note of a number of points which deserve our attention.

Asking Questions
a. The Essential Mikrah
Evidently the Mikrah Bikkurim is an essential part of the Mitzvah (commandment) of bringing first-fruits, for with regard to no other positive commandment do we find an obligation to read the words of the Torah associated with that particular commandment while performing it. Even the mitzvah to declare the removal of tithes which appears in this week's Torah portion is not accompanied by the performance of some separate act. The declaration itself is the mitzvah. When, though, it comes to the first-fruits, the recitation must accompany the act of bringing Bikkurim to the Temple.

The Sifri, our oldest commentary on the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy), derives a number of laws based upon the wording of the Mikrah Bikkurim. These laws indicate the importance of it's recitation. "And you shall speak and say" indicates, according to the Sifri, that the recitation must be carried out in a loud voice. Initially, adds the Sifri, whoever knew how to read would recite the Mikrah Bikkurim. Those who did not know how to read, had it read for them. When, as a result of this practice, people began to refrain from bringing their Bikkurim to the Temple, it was decreed by the sages that both the literate and the illiterate would have the Bikkurim portion read for them.

So absolutely essential is the reading of the Mikrah Bikkurim portion that the sages obligated those unable to read on their own to have the portion read to them while they repeated it word for word. By so doing they themselves would actually read aloud the entire Torah portion.
Yet why could a general public reading by the Cohen before all the first-fruit pilgrims not have sufficed?

b. Aramaean Puzzle
In addition, the content of the Bikkurim portion is puzzling. Who is this Aramaean who "attempted to destroy my father," and why does Scripture not reveal the outcome of the struggle with him? Why does the text simply move on to the Egyptian exile? Only after "seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress" is any sort of redemption mentioned: "God then brought us out of Egypt."

c. This Place... This Land
The final sentence of the Bikkurim portion is also a puzzle: "He brought us to this place , giving us this land ..." What is the significance of the repetition here? "this place...this land." If "this place" is referring to the Land of Israel then what is intended by "this land?"
"This place" explains Sifri "refers to the Holy Temple...this land, to the Land of Israel...through the merit of our coming to this place we receive this land."

It makes perfectly good sense for the one bringing his first-fruits to make mention of the Land of Israel; considering that it is the praiseworthy fruit of the land which he brings, it is only proper that the fruit's owner thank God for the land. Yet what does the Holy Temple have to do with it? True, the Cohen and the owner of the Bikkurim stand together in the Temple Court, but what is the essence of the connection between the first-fruits and the Holy Temple?

Let us now try to answer, in short, the above questions.

Getting Answers
a. The Aramaean and the Exile
Let us begin by examining the manner in which the sages interpreted the words: "An Aramaean attempted to destroy my father." Rashi, the father of the commentators, basing himself on the Sifri, explains them as follows: "[The one bringing the first-fruits] acknowledges God's lovingkindness proclaiming ''An Aramaean destroyed my father.' Laban attempted to uproot everything when he chased Jacob, and since he seriously contemplated the act of destroying Jacob, God related to him as if he had actually done it. The meaning of the passage then, according to Rashi, is: Laban the Aramaean attempted to destroy our forefather Jacob.

Yet commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra found this interpretation discomforting for more than one reason. He believed that the Aramaean referred to in our passage is in fact Jacob himself, interpreting our passage: "My ancestor was a poor Aramaean and he descended to Egypt..." For what does Laban's attempt to destroy Jacob have to do with his going to Egypt?
The Maharal of Prague rejects the approach of Rabbi Ibn Ezra and upholds the aforementioned Sifri interpretation:
"And concerning the difficulty raised [by Ibn Ezra:] that Scripture should first have mentioned that God saved him (Jacob) from Laban and only then 'he went to Egypt...' - this doesn't present a problem. [The scripture found it] necessary to start with humiliation and finish with praise, and therefore refrained from mentioning [things calling for] praise until 'God brought us out of Egypt...' It is not fitting to mention praise and then humiliation, rather start with humiliation and finish with praise, such that one is left with praise. And so, with Jacob's descent to Egypt it is clear that God saved him from Laban."

We might add that Scriptures' juxtaposition of the Aramaean and Egyptian exiles suggests that both Laban and the Egyptians tortured and plundered Israel with the intention of oppressing her and causing her to perish in the midst of foreign peoples. God, in his great mercy, saved us from both of them. What's more, he brought us up to the Holy Land and to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

The reader of the Mikrah Bikkurim understands that the order of the exiles and our freedom from them are intended entirely for the sake of bringing the People of Israel to their Land and having the Holy Temple built by them.

We find this idea in the Talmud tractate Pesahim in connection to the Haggadah of Passover. There the sages instruct us to open the Passover Seder with humiliation and to finish it with praise. To open the Seder with the humiliation of Israel emerged in the exile, and to finish it with praise - the coming to the Land of Israel and building of the Holy Temple. This is the glory of Israel, that our eternal spiritual home in the Land of Israel be built out of the darkness of exile. The exile in which Jacob dwelled in Aram, and in which his ancestors were emerged in Egypt.

b. Thank God
In the bringing of the Bikkurim, man's first fruits and produce, one is obligated to express his recognition for all of God's goodness towards him.
"At the root of this commandment lies the reason that a man arouses his thoughts and conceives the truth in his heart by virtue of the words of his mouth. Therefore, when the Eternal Lord has been good to him and has blessed him and his land that it should yield produce, and he has merited to bring some to the House of our God, it is fitting for him to rouse his heart through the words of his mouth, and to reflect that all came to him from the Sovereign Master of the world. Then he should recount his kindness (be He blessed) towards us and toward the entire Israelite people in general. He therefore begins with Jacob our Patriarch, that God rescued him from the hand of Laban; then with the servitude to which the Egyptians subjected us, and that He (blessed is He) delivered us from their hand. After the praise, he is to entreat Him to bestow the blessing constantly upon him."

Yet it becomes apparent from the above that a Jew's thankfulness to his creator is not merely for the success of his field and orchards but includes the recognition of God's kindness throughout our history. It encompasses God's goodness towards all of Israel since Jacobs exile in Aram and his goodness which will not leave us even in the future.
The one who recites the Bikkurim portion praises God for the great miracle of one lamb amongst seventy wolves, or, in the words of Jacob our Patriarch, because He "did not allow them to harm me." All of Laban's scheming to destroy Israel, like that of Pharaoh in Egypt, was in vain.

Jacob, in fleeing from a pursuing Laban, merited special Divine protection. Laban himself attests to this with regard to his dream: "I have the ability to do you great harm, but last night your father's God spoke to me saying, 'be very careful not to say anything, good or bad, to Jacob.'" Similarly Jacob's offspring in the Egyptian exile merited miraculous redemption. From complete darkness came forth light.
Therefore the one reading the first-fruit Torah portion when he brings them not only the Land of Israel but also "this place." - The Holy Temple.

c. The Temple Connection
Nahmanides , too, emphasizes the centrality of the Temple in the fulfillment of the commandment of recital over the first-fruits. The purpose of the Nation of Israel's coming to Israel is to create a place for the Shechina (Divine Presence) to reside in the lower world. To allow holiness to reveal itself in the physical world.

The uniqueness of the Jewish People allows the land to realize it's unique hidden potential, through the Temple in Jerusalem. The power of her holiness is manifest in her Bikkurim, in the first produce of a land which is the cornerstone and starting point of all creation, a land given to the People Israel also referred to as "first" among the nations.

Through the power of this "first" being brought to the Temple, the place where the world's creation originated - for from the area of the Temple in Jerusalem the world was founded - holiness spreads out onto the entire people who recognize God's goodness. Man learns from this Mitzvah a lesson to be carried with him for the whole rest of the year - that it's not enough to thank God for personal good fortune and success, but that one is must thank God for the great kindness which He has shown to the entire People of Israel throughout their long history. Through the performance of this act the feeling of unity and mutual kindness towards all Jews will be strengthened in the heart of the one who reads the Bikkurim portion.

With a feeling of spiritual responsibility and recognition of our dependence on God, it is possible to walk to Jerusalem and to wave the fruits of our faith - the faith that we shall merit quickly the return of God's divine presence to our Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
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