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Pressure Points

Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

Parshat Ki Tavo begins with the commandment of Bikurim which obligates a landholder to bring the first of his crop of the seven species to the Temple in Jerusalem in a special basket, recite the speech of thanksgiving, and then present the basket of fruit to the officiating Kohen. Parshat Ki Tavo ends with the recitation of the curses (which apply to our present Diaspora according to Nachmanides), bringing the total number of curses in the Torah to 98.

Superficially, there is nothing in common between the commandment of Bikurim, which has to do with blessings and the final passage which is related to curses.

Nevertheless, a careful analysis reveals a common theme that we propose to explore in this essay.


* * *


There is something quite peculiar about the speech the Torah mandates the presenter of Bikurim to recite:

An Aramean [Laban] tried to destroy my forefather [Jacob]. 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 the Lord, the God of our forefathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our travail and our oppression. The Lord took us out of Egypt with a strong hand and 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 first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O God!

If we attempt to relate to this speech in the normal way that most people relate to their national history, we encounter a serious problem. For example, no doubt most Americans feel grateful that their nation was founded by great men, like Washington and Jefferson and their comrades, who had the remarkable vision to establish a free society around the idea of inalienable human rights permanently enshrined in a written constitution. But very few of these same Americans are able to relate to any of this as something that was done specifically for them.

Americans cannot relate to events of their history as created especially for them.

The Americans alive today are merely fortuitous beneficiaries of a historical process that was driven by its own inner dynamic. Whatever may have happened in the remote past, as it did not happen for them, it does not obligate them in any way to do anything in the present to express their gratitude.

Yet the commandment of Bikurim enjoins the smallest Jewish landholder with an olive tree growing in his backyard to tie a band around the first few olives that appear on his tree each season and bring those olives to Jerusalem upon reaching maturation and recite a speech of gratitude which clearly implies that the great events of the Exodus, which took place hundreds of years in the past are in some way directly related to him. He speaks of the land that "You have given me".

As this speech was authored by God, when we put it into our mouths, God in effect informs us that the entire history of the Jewish people has each and every one of us in mind. Jacob's travails and the descent into Egypt, the Redemption and the conquest -- all happened so that I could have this olive tree in my backyard in Israel!


* * *


In this sense, the beginning of the Parshat Tavo is the flip side of its ending.

The ending speech is a rebuke -- a tochacha -- a speech of warning and castigation. According to Nachmanides, this speech refers to events that would only begin to occur in the real world well over a thousand years after the speech was delivered -- at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. In other words, Moses castigated the people who stood before him for tragedies that will only take place many years after their deaths.

What is more, we are informed by the Rabbis that the entire sequence of the method of division of the Torah into weekly portions is based on the calculation that we will read this portion in the month adjacent to Rosh Hashana which begins the new Jewish calendar year.

Ezra inaugurated the rule that we should read the curses of Leviticus before Shavuot and the curses of Deuteronomy before Rosh Hashana. What is the reason? Abaye said so that the curses of the year could end with the year. We can understand this answer in terms of the curses of Deuteronomy as the year ends on Rosh Hashana, but in what sense does Shavuot represent a new year? Yes, truly Shavuot also begins a new year, as we learned, on Shavuot the world is judged for the coming year's crop of fruit. (Talmud, Megilah, 31b)

[Incidentally, Shavuot also inaugurates the Bikurim season. Bikurim are brought between Shavuot and Succoth. The person who brings his Bikurim after Succot does not get to recite the Bikurim speech.]

Thus, although most of these curses if not all of them, have already materialized in Jewish history and are already behind us, we still read them before Rosh Hashana. This means that not only are we responsible for future tribulations, but the tragedies of the past are also in some way attributable to us! How can we unravel all this information?


* * *


Let us begin at the very beginning.

In the beginning of God's creating the heaven and the earth (Genesis 1:1)

The Hebrew word meaning "beginning" is reishit. One of the interpretations of Rashi: God created the world for the sake of all the things in the Torah that are referred to as reishit; thus the letter bet, meaning "in" implies causality. For the sake of reishit, Rashi brings two examples: 

  1. The Torah which is called reishit.
  2. Children of Israel who are referred to as reishit.

 Nachmanides presents a few more, taking a portion of dough, separating the tithes, and first fruits are all referred to as reishit.

Explains Nachmanides: Reishit is a reference to the first of the ten sefirot -- chochmah ("wisdom"). The idea behind this is that the wisdom of God, while invisible to our finite power of vision, serves as the basis of all reality.

We live in a backward universe.

We live in a backward universe. To us reality begins with the physical. Ideas are debatable; their relation to reality is often unclear, that is, they do not necessarily represent reality accurately. This ambiguous association between ideas and the realities to which they are attached is the reason that wise men often disagree, each believing sincerely that he is totally in the right.

God created the physical world and what is more, He created it according to His ideas. His ideas are at the root of all reality and the physical world is their most abstract expression. Physicality occupies the same position in the pantheon of God that ideas occupy in ours. In Divine terms, it is the connection of physical things to the reality of God's ideas that is debatable.

The intersection between the world of concepts and the world of materials is at the transition point when things first begin to acquire their material shape. Thus the first fruit or the first dough is sanctified, in the attempt to insure that the material world will not deviate from God's ideas but will accurately express reality as it appears from His side. Hence reishit, the beginning point, is related to chochmah, or God's wisdom as Nachmanides explains.


* * *


But of course there is more to it than that. If, as we have argued, reality from God's side is associated with ideas, then all of reality is contained in God's ideas, not just the first point of transition into the material world. That point is merely the place where the world of ideas and the world of objects brush up against each other.

But the reality of all things in the world of objects must necessarily derive from the world of ideas and flow through this contact point. This fact, when properly considered leads to the remarkable conclusion that the historical process as envisioned by God is totally unrelated to the passage of historical time.

To see how this can/must be so, we have only to consider how we relate to our own plans.

At age 18 John decides to become a doctor. He knows exactly the area of specialty he is interested in, he knows which university he plans to attend and in which hospital he plans to intern. The entire process should take him approximately 12 years and John expects to hang out his shingle at age 30. Assume that, miracle of miracles, everything runs smoothly, exactly according to plan. In a sense this 12-year process was already completed in John's mind before it began to unfold in the real world altogether.

The difference is, of course, that for us human beings ideas do not equal reality. Thus until these 12 years actually pass, our 18-year-old planner is only a doctor in his dreams, and not in reality. But that is only because his ideas are not reality.

But suppose all reality was really composed of ideas, and what we perceive as reality was only the outward expression of the ideas which are the true realities. Then, it would indeed be true to say that in reality John was already a doctor at age 18. It took 12 years for this reality to find its expression in the physical world, but material expression always lags behind inspiration and therefore such a gap in time is to be expected.

For most of us, ideas are not reality.

The truth is deeper. To be able to construct a parallel that can portray the implementation of Divine ideas out of John's situation, we must now factor in the complication that our student also has free will. Thus he is in charge of the process of the translation of Divine ideas into reality and shapes the way they are expressed in the physical world.

If God planned for John to be a doctor at age 18 that is, in fact, what he will inevitably be. After all, God's plan is the reality, and our student is therefore a doctor to the very core of his being. It is only God's plan that gives him existence and, according to this plan, his very existence calls for him to be a doctor.

But it may take him more than twelve years. He may choose not to study hard enough to get into medical school initially; or he may not get to intern in the hospital of his choice because he chose to go skiing and broke his leg and the position was filled by the time he healed; or his wife might have talked him into choosing a more lucrative field of specialty. Thus, he may hang out his shingle at age 35 instead of 30, in a different city, with different letters after his name than originally planned.

But how can this be if it is not in God's plan?

Let us remember that physical reality to God is like ideas are to us. Just as different sorts of ideas can fit the same reality from our standpoint, which is the reason we disagree about ideas, different sorts of physical reality can all be expressions of the same Divine ideas from God's standpoint. The extreme edges of any sharply-defined reality always tend to grow a bit fuzzy.


* * *


Nevertheless, there are limits. If we return to our own world, there aren't endless possibilities of disagreement about facts. Economists may attribute the collapse of the Roman Empire to economic reasons, while sociologists may say that such a collapse is part of a normal inevitable historical pattern, and both points of view might be considered reasonable, but a view that attributed the collapse of the Roman Empire to global warming would be rejected as absurd. Physical reality imposes limits on the range of possible ideas that can be applied to fit it. In the same way, when ideas are the fundamental realities, these ideas will impose limits on the possible modes of their physical expression.

It is these limits that we experience as curses. Human beings who have free will are kept within certain bounds by physical pressures. When a certain mode of behavior produces conditions that are impossible to live with, it is abandoned. On the other hand, when following a course of action produces a wonderful world, it generally continues to be pursued. Curses are the result of engaging in free will behavior that is an absurd expression of God's ideas. The curses are an indication of how poorly the physical expression fits into the reality of God's ideas.


* * *


If we now go back to the ideas God revealed to us in the Bikurim speech, they begin to assume a certain coherence. Each human soul begins existence in the sefirah of chochmah as a Divine idea. Each human soul has its own purpose and character. Each human soul is given free will to express the Divine idea that gives it fundamental reality in the physical world within certain limits, which are defined by the 98 curses.

All individual human beings are part of the total universal historic process.

To complete the picture of how all this fits into the historical process we must introduce another related factor. All individual human beings are part of the total universal historic process aside from living their own private lives.

If we again express this thought in terms of how it looks from the Divine standpoint, we are led to the following: It is only individuals who have free will. Mankind as a whole must express God's global plan for history with exactitude. This idea also finds its expression in bereishit.

There are six letters in the word bereishit, signifying the six work days. The first verse contains seven words representing all the days of the week. The verse contains 28 letters representing the number of full days in every Hebrew month. The verse contains the letter aleph six times, each aleph standing for a thousand years [aleph in Hebrew can also be read as eleph meaning a "thousand"], representing in total the maximum stretch of human history. (Da'ath Zekenim, Genesis 1,1)

But it is individuals that accomplish human history. Thus within the limited time of 6,000 years, human beings acting with individual free will, shaping their own Divine idea into historic reality, must all together accomplish the overall design of global human history and succeed in bringing the Messiah.


* * *


The global message is a sum total of the accomplishment of individuals who have variable options, although these options range within allowable limits as pointed out. Just as our student may hang out his shingle at 30 or 35, human beings may accomplish the actualization of God's plan in varying lengths of historic time.

The time of entry of any particular soul into the physical world to become part of the historic process is also a variable. As each soul is a distinct part of the overall historical process, the time of its introduction must be coordinated with the progress of the overall global plan. History can be long or short. Any individual's contribution may or may not be necessary to move things along depending on how well or poorly the entire historical process is moving forward. The combination of all human souls must express all of the ideas that are in the sefirah of chochmah. Whether this takes a thousand years or six thousand years or a few days, or whether it requires 600,000 Jewish individuals or a few billion lies within man's province.

Adam could have finished the job in a few hours. The desert generation could have completed the job right after the Exodus. King Hezekiah was envisioned by the prophet Isaiah as the Messiah. Rabbi Akiva believed that Bar Kochba could bring the historical process to an end.

Just as in the case of our medical student, how long it takes to hang out one's shingle depends on the quantity and quality of the time invested in actualizing the plan. This matter is entirely in the human province and is a product of man's free will.

But just as each soul is confined to a legitimate expression of the Divine idea by the pressures provided by the 98 curses, each soul necessarily must have a positive program that drives it forward within these allowable limits.

The Exodus and its aftermath, the award of the land of Israel, is a necessary portion of every Jewish individual's positive program. These events lay down the path of knowledge through which the individual Jew is able to make contact with the point of reishit, the world of God's ideas. Only someone with positive contact to this point can accurately express the Divine ideas that lie adjacent in the sefirah of chochmah, the ideas from which all reality flows.

In the world of God's ideas, where everything exists simultaneously before it is introduced into historic time, these ideas are there for the sake of all Jews equally. The fact that they entered the history of the physical world at one particular historical era does not affect the sefirah of chochmah where all reality is originally formed. In the sefirah of chochmah, these ideas are there to provide the reishis point for every individual Jewish soul.

Internalizing the message of Parshat Ki Tavo teaches a double lesson. As long as we are on a legitimate path of expression of our spiritual potential, the entire immensity of the revelations of the Exodus and its aftermath is ours to draw upon. But when we veer past the limits of legitimate expression we hit the brick wall of the curses. These are the outer limits of every Jew's fate. We all live in the space between the blessings of Bikurim and the 98 curses.

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