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Parashat Ki Tavo
September 13, 2014 – 18 Elul 5774 

Annual (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8): Etz Hayim p. 1140; Hertz p. 859
Triennial (Deuteronomy 26:1-27:10): Etz Hayim p. 1140; Hertz p. 859
 Haftarah (Isaiah 60:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 1161; Hertz p. 874

 Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, South Carolina

Israelites in the Promised Land will be required to bring some of the first fruits to the priests and to declare their gratitude to God for the blessings bestowed throughout history. They must also declare that they have tithed appropriately.

The Israelites must put the commandments into stone, literally.

A ceremony is described in which the people must gather between two mountains and hear of sins that take place in private, many of them sexual in nature.

If God’s commandments are fulfilled, Israel will be blessed in many ways. If they are not, Israel will be punished in dozens of ways, leading to their return to slavery in Egypt.

Moses reminds the people of the many miracles God performed during the years of wandering in the wilderness, including the defeat of several peoples.


Theme #1: Bursting With First-Fruit Flavor

You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish his name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deuteronomy 26:2-3)

The mitzvah of the first-fruits ensures the ancient Israelite’s gratitude for not only God’s blessings in their lives, but in the lives of those who lived before him.

Why does a person wait until he brings his bikkurim -- first fruits -- before he declares “I arrived today?” … Even as [the farmer] sits by his flourishing fields and orchards, and although the bounty of his labor abounds, his soul still feels unsatisfied and lacking in true goodness. There is a moment he feels that he has truly arrived in the land, and when he appreciates the gifts of [God] as being genuine acquisitions. This is when he finally arrives at the [Temple] and offers of the first fruits of the Kohen. This is the moment when he can first proclaim, “Today, I have experienced a spiritual milestone …” -- Rabbi Mordechai Rogow, Ateres Mordechai

The mitzvah of first fruits was a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, because obviously during the time from [Shavuot] until Sukkot, most of the first fruits were brought before Rosh Hashanah. In this way, by the end of the year, the people would bring back the first fruits to the Holy One, and thus the end of everything would be joined with its beginning. For this reason, the first fruits [in our verse] are called “reishit”. … The root of reishit was vouchsafed unto the Israelites that they might be called reishit of God’s bringing forth, which is to say that they possess the spiritual power for cleaving continually with reishit. -- Sfat Emet

The commandment to offer the first fruits was to come into force only after the Jews would have settled in the Promised Land, but the willingness of the Children of Israel, while they were still in the wilderness, to accept this obligation for that future day when they would be in their own country gave them sufficient merit to enable them to conquer the land of Canaan. -- Malbim

Questions for Discussion:

Rabbi Mordechai Rogow explains that the commandment to bring the first fruits represents a farmer’s realization of the goodness that God has provided, as if the “fruits of his labors” literally are being realized. When else do we understand the fruits of our labors a long time after the labors are completed? What is it about the moment of realization that changes our perspective?

Sfat Emet suggests that the new beginnings represented in the ceremony of the first fruits is a parallel of the new beginnings we strive to achieve as Rosh Hashanah approaches each year (this Torah portion is always read shortly before the holiday). Are there words we can take from the farmer’s declaration to use for our own process of repentance and personal improvement? Is the farmer’s reflection on communal history an element that can help our perspective during the month of Elul?

To the Malbim, the Israelites’ willingness alone to perform the first-fruits ceremony is enough for them to be granted entry into the Promised Land. When else is a person’s or group’s willingness the most telling predictor of success?

Theme #2: Getting Plastered

As soon as you have crossed the Jordan into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones. Coat them with plaster and inscribe upon them all the words of this Teaching. When you cross over to enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you -- upon crossing the Jordan, you shall set up these stones, about which I charge you this day, on Mount Ebal, and coat them with plaster. (Deuteronomy 27:2-4)

It is not enough for the Israelites to have received tablets of the covenant; they are asked to write down the law themselves.

This is quite clearly a covenant ratification ritual, but the place, Shechem, gives the ritual a deepened and allusive meaning. It was to Shechem that Abraham first came when the Lord summoned him from Ur, at Shechem that he offered his first sacrifice to the Lord. It was near Shechem that Joseph, God’s favorite, was captured and sold into slavery by his brothers. Moses has brought Joseph’s bones with him, and Joshua will bury them at Shechem. God, twice on the point of canceling his covenant with Israel, has renewed it for Moses’ sake. And now Moses orders that the covenant by formally enacted at Shechem. -- Jack Miles, God: A Biography

[These scenes] differ also in content from all the rest of Deuteronomy, in which general rules for life valid for all time were promulgated. These passages are concerned with cultic instructions … we know from the history of the cult at least this much about that sacred place, that during the period of the monarchy no particularly far-reaching significance was attached to it. But it must be assumed from the outset that Deuteronomy considered its central place of worship to be one of the great and famous sanctuaries. -- Gerhard von Rad, Deuteronomy

The legislation in Deuteronomy provides for a central sanctuary, but this does not preclude the possibility of other legitimate Yahweh sanctuaries elsewhere. Evidence for this view is found in the fact that Deuteronomy 27 explicitly commands that an altar be constructed on Mount Ebal and that burnt offerings and peace offerings be offered there. Furthermore … it calls for the inscription of the law at the site on Mount Ebal, which is appropriate for a sanctuary. -- Peter T. Vogt, Deuteronomic Theology and the Significance of Torah: A Reappraisal

Questions for Discussion:

Miles notes that Shechem had been the site of numerous encounters between our ancestors and the Divine. Physical locations can carry significance to multiple generations; for example, it is not uncommon for presidential candidates to declare their candidacies at important places in American history. When is a place more than just a symbol? Are there specific circumstances which cause a location to impact the way we think?

Gerhard von Rad explains that the directive to ratify God’s covenant is a bit of a “throwback” to thinking often found in the book of Leviticus and any passage involving the ancient sacrificial rites. Is it troubling that the theology and rules found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy often differ from one another? Should we make an effort to harmonize them? Or can we be satisfied that each book, for the most part, details contrasting ways of thinking among our ancestors?

Vogt teaches that much of the book of Deuteronomy is based on the idea that ritual must take place at specific locations. This stands in contrast to the thinking in more modern Jewish days, as religious observance became more mobile (through, in part, the development of the synagogue as a center of Jewish communities), and in which, especially in recent years, technology has allowed us to “go mobile” in just about every way. Is there a place for Deuteronomy’s way of thinking anymore? Is there a continued value to “place” in a day of virtual communities?

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