Parshat Ki Tavo
2001Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) presents us with the mitzvah of Bikurim, the process of bringing the first fruits to the Temple. This is meant to be a celebratory occasion, providing an opportunity to thank God for the bounty of the harvest. To help us articulate our gratitude, the parsha goes so far as to script a lengthy statement of what to say once the fruit basket has been handed to the priest and set before the altar. This statement assigns to the basket a much greater meaning than merely thanking God for the harvest. Indeed, one is supposed to recite verses that place the mitzvah of Bikurim in the overarching historical scheme of redemption from slavery in Egypt. Here is the statement accompanying the mitzvah of Bikurim:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me.
Your Torah Navigator
1) What series of events is outlined by these verses? How does the offering of the first fruits fit into this larger historical narrative?
2) What kind of impact would this long declaration have on the speaker? Do you find it inspiring?
3) Notice that this declaration begins in the first person singular ("my father was a fugitive Aramean") and then switches to the first person plural ("the Egyptians dealt harshly with us"). Finally, the declaration switches back to the first person singular ("wherefore I now bring the first fruits"). Why would the speaker shift voices from the singular, to the plural, and then back to the singular?
Anyone reciting these lines could not help but be struck by the magnitude of the historical events which have enabled him to visit the Temple on this day. The process goes as follows:
-We were slaves in Egypt;
-God heard our cries;
-God freed us from oppression;
-God brought us to the land of Israel and gave us the soil therein;
-We then planted fruits on that soil.
The basket of fruits is thus a manifestation of far more than our gratitude for agricultural bounty. Rather, it becomes a potent symbol of ALL that God has done for us in redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to independent existence on our own soil.
This statement could be considered inspiring for two reasons. First, the declaration is said out loud, vocalizing and actualizing for the speaker the fact that he can now literally reap the benefits of his own labor. Secondly, this statement weaves the individual into the colorful tapestry of Jewish history. Just by bringing his first fruits to the Temple, the speaker of this recitation represents the culmination of a process and the fulfillment of a vision. In this way, the statement poignantly roots the individual speaker in the dramatic turn of events in collective Jewish history.
The transitions in voice -- from individual to collective and back to individual--help illuminate the verses' emphasis on the individual's place in the historical process. By first speaking about his father, a wanderer without a home, the speaker asserts his heritage as a member of the people who suffered enslavement in Egypt. Having claimed the story of his ancestors as his own, the speaker then feels entitled to speak in the collective voice. The Egyptians "dealt harshly with US" and "oppressed US"; in reaction to this oppression, "WE cried to the LORD" and "the LORD heard OUR plea." This collective voice continues when explaining God's actions to save the Israelite nation: "The LORD freed US," "He brought US to this place and gave US this land" (emphasis added). Only in the last verse does the speaker finally switch back to the first person voice: "Where I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O LORD, have given me." The speaker's narrative now comes full circle: generations of wanderers and slaves have given rise to this free individual, who can proclaim before God that he has reaped fruits from the soil God has given him.
It makes sense that the speaker would changes modes from collective to individual at this point; he is shifting from describing the history of a people, to describing a particular action undertaken by a person. Yet the process of mentioning his people's history comes BEFORE the declaration of his own action; it is as if he must contextualize his personal situation within that of his people. In other words, the speaker reminds himself of where he has been in order to acknowledge where he now finds himself; this helps him fully prepare for where he is going.
Prepared by Hannah Graham, Iyyun Fellow, Hillel's International Center.