Shaarei Shamayim

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KI TAVO 5777/74

KI TAVO 5777/74

In today’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, we find the Tochecha—98 frightening curses that will befall the Jewish people if they abandon Gd’s Torah. It’s so frightening the custom is to read these curses in a whisper. It’s almost as if we are saying that Gd shouldn’t pay too much attention to them—that these curses should not come upon us. 

The Tochecha is preceded by the mitzvah of the First Fruits. What’s the connection? Also, immediately before the mitzvah of the First Fruits ceremony—at the end of last week’s Torah portion—we have the mitzvah to destroy Amalek wherever he raises his ugly head. The people of Amalek attacked the Jewish people when they left Egypt from behind where the weakest were to be found. They attacked for no reason. The Jews did not threaten them or even approach their land. Amalek attacked simply because we were Jewish! It makes no sense. Anti-Semitism never does.

What’s the connection between the mitzvah of the 1st fruits and Amalek? The mitzvah of the 1st fruits is to train us to be grateful for Gd’s gifts. The Talmud tells us that when we are ungrateful to Gd he may send us an Amalek to teach us a lesson. Gd is, in effect, saying, “If you don’t appreciate what I do for you…Amalek will be on the way.”

The deeper teaching is that our gratitude is part of the reason Gd created us in the 1st place. Kabbalah teaches us that Gd created us to have an opportunity to display His goodness! If we don’t at least appreciate what Gd does for us, then He may withdraw from us and not protect us. In Biblical times it was Amalek who attacks. Today it’s the Palestinians, Hezbollah, Gd forbid the Iranians, or possibly even a hurricane. Gratitude to Gd is a powerful lesson as we approach Rosh Hashanah.

Let’s take a closer look at this Bikurim First Fruits ceremony. The fruits were brought in baskets to the Holy Temple. How much fruit, how big a basket was one required to bring? That was up to the farmer. It wasn’t easy in those days making the trip to the Temple in Jerusalem. There were expanses of land that were uninhabited; the terrain was difficult; there were criminals on the way; and if one lived up in the north it took up to 10 days to get to Jerusalem by donkey or camel. All this just for a basket of fruits!? Yes, that’s how important appreciation is to Gd!

Today you get into your car and travel on the highway and it takes just a few hours from the north to Jerusalem via Route 6 or Highway 90. If the Temple was rebuilt today, I suppose one might think that he could Fedex his First Fruit basket—like a gift basket to the Temple. How much appreciation to Gd would $30 shipping costs and a box of fruits be? No, for the mitzvah of the 1stfruits one has to be there and present the fruits himself reciting a special declaration of appreciation that comes directly from the Torah—a declaration familiar to anyone who ever attended a Seder.

On the face of it, bringing baskets of fruits to a Koheyn doesn’t seem like such an important mitzvah. Many Kohanim were rich and didn’t really need the baskets. They received the skins of the sacrifices which they could sell for leather or making tefilin. They received a steady stream of the maaseyr tithing—10% of the crops. They received all the meat they and their families could eat from the sacrifices which must have been worth hundreds of dollars each day. They had special private doctors in the Temple to keep them healthy. It was very profitable to be a Koheyn. It was a good life. Why was it so important to bring a basket of fruits to a Koheyn who didn’t really need it?

Let’s examine the text of this declaration of gratitude(Deut. 26:1-11): An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation—great, strong, and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and afflicted us, and placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to Hashem, the Gd of our forefathers, and Hashem heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail, and our oppression. Hashem took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awesomeness, and with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place, and He gave us this Land, a Land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold! I have brought the 1st fruit of the ground that You have given me, O Hashem! And you shall lay it before Hashem your Gd, and you shall prostrate yourself before Hashem your Gd. You shall be glad with all the goodness that Hashem your Gd, has given you and your household—you and the Levite and the proselyte who is in your midst.

Do you recognize the text? Of course, it’s quoted in the Haggadah of Passover for reasons that will seem clear in a moment. What’s the connection between the mitzvah of First Fruits and the text of the prayer?

It begins: Arami oveyd avi, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather.” Who is this Aramean and who is the forefather? The Haggadah explains:Tzey ul’mad, come and learn what Laban the Aramean tried to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh decreed only against the males, Laban sought to destroy all.” The commentators ask, “What does the Haggadah mean when it indicates that Laban was worse than Pharaoh who threw Jewish babies into the river?” One answer is that Laban wanted to kill Jacob and that would have destroyed the whole Jewish nation that descended from him.

Another explanation is that Joseph—born from Rachel—was supposed to be the 1st born. By deceiving Jacob into marrying Leah 1st, Laban created the situation of Leah’s son Reuven became the 1st born. And when Jacob favored Joseph because he was the 1st born of his beloved Rachel, it stirred the jealousy of his brothers which eventually led to the Jewish people going down to Egypt where they were almost destroyed. Laban jeopardized Gd’s plan by deceiving Jacob and Gd had to intervene with miracles to save us.

How many times does the phrase, “I am Hashem your Gd Who took you out of the land of Egypt,” appear in the Torah? Dozens and dozens. It’s like if your father buys you a house and says to you every time he comes to visit, “Don’t forget it; I am your father who bought you your house.” After 20 times of saying this you’ll say to him, “Father, if I knew you would be reminding me every week that you bought us our home, we would have stayed in our small one bedroom apartment!”

Why does Gd repeat over and over again that He took us out of Egypt? To bring home the point that the only reason He took us out of Egypt…the only reason Gd performed all those miracles for us is…so that we would become His children, love Him, appreciate Him and observe His Torah.

What’s the lesson of the juxtaposition of the Bikurim First Fruits ceremony sandwiched between the passage about Amalek at the end of last week’s Torah portion and the 98 curses at the end of today’s Torah portion? In a word: gratitude! The First Fruits ceremony represented a reminder of how Gd has blessed he who brought his first fruits. The curses are a reminder that if we ignore the special covenant Gd has made with us, if we abandon His Torah, if we don’t appreciate Gd’s blessings…then Gd may “hide His face” from us and terrible things may happen.

May our reading of the Bikurim ceremony this Shabbat inspire us to appreciate more and be especially grateful for all the wonderful blessings Gd has showered upon us …grateful that as Hurricane Irma rages we are safe…and hopeful that all our fellow Americans will be safe as well. Amen!

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