June 23, 2009

15 min read


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

As the Jews are making the final preparations for the imminent conquest, Moses instructs the people:

And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it. That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there. (Deut. 28:1-2)

The law which is taught is the command of bikkurim, the "first fruits."

The law itself is quite interesting. When the Jews finally settle and work the land, until the land yields its produce, they are being encouraged not to forget the trials and tribulations their ancestors endured to see the fruits of their labor.

They are to imagine the beautiful tranquility of living in their own land, being nomads no more.

The Torah is encouraging what we can call "historical consciousness." Here, Moses encourages the people to look into the future and imagine the beautiful tranquility of living in their own land, being nomads no more.

At that point, man is commanded to look back and declare:

A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard slavery. And when we cried to the Lord God of our fathers, the Lord heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labor, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesomeness, and with signs, and with wonders. And he has brought us to this place, and has given us this land, a land that flows with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which you, O Lord, have given me. And you shall set it before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God. (Deut. 26:5-10)

We are not to view our success in either a spiritual nor a historical vacuum. We must recognize not only where we came from, but we must be cognizant of the Divine hand which constantly guides us.


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At the conclusion of this ceremony the Torah ordains:

And you shall rejoice in every good thing which the Lord your God has given to you, and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. (Deut. 26:11)

It is not sufficient to see the chain of events in a spiritual context. The result of such an analysis must be joy, the joy of standing in front of God, and thanking Him for all the gifts which have been showered upon us. The individual who sees his success in a myopic, self-aggrandized sense, suffers from a spiritual malevolence of far-reaching consequences.

We find a warning of what will be the inevitable result if man does not adhere to the word of God.

In order to understand these issues we must forge ahead in this week's Torah portion. In the latter part we find a rebuke, a warning and a litany of curses -- which will be the inevitable result if man does not adhere to the word of God. [See also Parshat Bechukotai in the archives section.] The horrific behavior of the Jews which will serve as a catalyst for this outcome is described as follows:

And all these curses shall come upon you, and shall pursue you, and overtake you, till you are destroyed; because you listened not to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes which he commanded you. And they shall be upon you for a sign and for a wonder, and upon your seed forever. Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things. (Deut. 28: 45-47)

The terrible curses are brought about due to a lack of "joyfulness, and ... gladness of heart." We would not have imagined that this would be the core problem which would lead to a 2,000-year exile, yet that is what exactly what we learn.

One often imagines that the emphasis on joy and happiness is some later Hassidic idea, yet no one would claim that these verses are an interpolation dating to the 18th century.

Therefore, the opening of this Torah portion must be understood in the same light, the result of the first fruits was to be joyful; if that joy would be lacking then the results would be catastrophic.

This analysis will aid us in understanding the following, related Midrash:

Moses used his Divine clairvoyance, and saw that the Temple would one day be destroyed, and therefore the rite of first fruits would cease. He therefore initiated prayer, three times a day. (Tanchuma Kitavo)

This Midrash seems somewhat obscure, why, of all the rites and practices in the Temple, was the rite of first fruits singled out as the one which Moses was concerned about. Secondly, what correlation exists between prayer and this rite?

On the other hand perhaps we can reverse the logic, and say that it was the lack of observance of this rite -- with its stress on joy -- which led to the destruction. Might that be the connection? This would support our understanding that the lack of joy described at the end of the Torah portion is connected with the joy described in the beginning.


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The connection which we made in passing above, between the present exile and this week's Torah portion is based on a teaching made famous by Nachmanides, in his commentary to the Book of Leviticus. His source is actually a passage in the Zohar.

The Zohar begins by telling us that when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was in a cave together with his son Rabbi Eliezer hiding from the Romans, Elijah the prophet would visit them daily and teach them the mysteries of the Torah. Meanwhile, during their absence, back in the study hall a question arose:

It is said (we have a tradition) that the curses in Torat Kohanim (Book of Leviticus) are referring to the destruction of the first Temple, while the curses listed in Mishna Torah (literally Repetition of the Torah, or Deuteronoomy) refer to the second Temple. The curses in Leviticus contain guarantees and display the love which God has for man ... The curses in Deuteronomy contain no such guarantees or comforting words [that one day redemption will come] ... and no one knew how to answer this question. Rabbi Yehuda bar Iylai arose and said: "Woe to us for we miss Rabbi Shimon, and we do not know where he is."

We must keep in mind that the time which elapsed between the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the building of the second Temple was but seventy years. Roughly seventy years after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans the Bar Kochba rebellion failed, and the persecution by Emperor Hadrian violently squashed the nascent messianic aspirations. Rabbi Akiva was dead, and the great Rabbi Shimon was in hiding. Instead of giving up hope, the remaining sages were confident that there was a good explanation for the lack of guarantees, and comforting words in these passages, which described the exile which they were enduring.

Rabbi Yossi bar Yehuda, arose one morning and saw many birds flying about. Alone in the back of the group was one solitary dove. He stood on his feet and said "Dove, faithful dove, from the days of the flood [of Noah] symbol of our holy people ... go and be my emissary to Bar Yochai, wherever he may be."

The dove which is the symbol of hope and peace from time immemorial, serves as a prototype for the behavior of the Jewish people because of its reputation for fidelity and monogamy. Seeing the dove inspired Rabbi Yossi and gave him hope.

The dove circled above while Rabbi Yossi wrote a letter ... the dove took the letter to Rabbi Shimon ... When Rabbi Shimon saw the letter he began to weep ... He said I am crying because I am separated from my companions, and I cry for that which is not revealed to them, what will future generations do if they see this? Elijah then arrived, he saw that [Rabbi Shimon] was crying. He [Elijah] said I was on a different mission, but God sent me to dry your tears.


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The Zohar then describes the Apocalypse -- how things will look at the end of days. Elijah reveals to Rabbi Shimon, that in reality all the punishment and curses emanated from God who, as a loving father must at times discipline, but all the curses indeed emanate from love. At the very end of the passage Elijah explains:

All this will take place at the end of days, and all is dependent on repentance, but it is hidden ... he who has a heart will look and return to his master ... Rabbi Shimon wrote these things in a letter and sent it back with the dove to Rav Yossi who was still waiting ... (Zohar Chadash Ki Tavo 59c-60a)

The understanding that the two sections of rebuke in the Torah -- in Leviticus and Deuteronomy -- refer to the first and second Temples respectively is the point of origin in the Zohar. The main concern in the Zohar is how to explain the lack of guarantees on God's part. But the conclusion of the Zohar is instructive, man's repentance has the capacity to heal.

In order to understand why the first destruction had guarantees, while the second destruction is dependent on man's repentance, we must introduce a new concept: There are two ways to heal the rift in the relationship between man and God. One type is the "movement" of God towards man. This is described in mystical literature as an "awakening from above."

There are two ways to heal the rift -- movement of God toward man, and man toward God.

The second type is the movement of man toward God, or an "awakening from below." The guarantees which are described in Leviticus indicate the healing which needed to take place at that juncture was based on movement by God. On the other hand, the second exile will not come to an end until man reaches out toward God.

This idea is the essence of this week's Torah portion.


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After man sees the fruit of his labor, an appreciation of God must be part of that experience. The rejection, or absence of God at the culmination of the conquest, settling and normalization of life, cause a spiritual vacuum. Man is supposed to sense and feel God in all his endeavors. Throughout the varieties of experiences and permeating the vicissitudes of the human condition God should play a dominant role. Certainly, at the moment of success, when the covenant formed with our forefathers had come to fruition, man was to recognize that the grace and love of God allowed all this.

This was the objective of the first fruits ceremony. After all, what better symbol exists for the fulfillment of the covenant than the fruits in our hands. Living in our own land, supported by our own labor, independent of foreign powers or resources.

This realization was to bring a person "before the Lord," as it is described in the Torah:

And you shall set it (the first fruits offering) before the Lord your God, and worship before the Lord your God. (Deut. 26:10)

It is both a physical and a spiritual state to stand before God, produce in hand, and it should lead to feelings bordering on ecstasy. If man does not feel the joy at that point when evidence of God's keeping His word is in his hand, then it is an indication that man has moved away from God despite all the blessing he received.

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things. (Deut. 28:47)


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When man has moved away from the Divine, the only rectification is for man to move back toward God. Therefore the Zohar concludes that repentance is the key to heal the rift, which caused the destruction of the second Temple. This would also explain the Midrash cited at the outset -- Moses knew that the absence of the Temple necessitated man's movement toward God; therefore, Moses instituted thrice daily prayer, in order to remind man constantly, in all his experiences, that he must not forget God, rather he should take every opportunity to stand in front of God.

Furthermore, prayer is described as "service of the heart." Evidently the heart, the emotions are crucial for this return.

Repentance itself may be divided into two types, that which is the result of man's fears and sense of mortality:


  1. repentance motivated by fear, and
  2. repentance motivated by love, which emerges from a profound sense of love toward God.


This latter type of repentance represents man's appreciation of all the gifts which God constantly provides and brings healing both for individuals and for the entire creation.

When the Jewish people succeed in relating to God via love, Elijah will return to dry our tears and the exile will come to end.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 3:23-24)

The end of days will indeed be a time when Elijah returns, fathers and sons will be united, the historical consciousness which we described in the beginning will be the order of the day. At that time we will be united with our father in heaven as well. And a joy of the type which we have not seen before will spread throughout the earth. Indeed, it is joy which will cause this cosmic reunion. The impetus must come from below, the response will be from above.

In the end, Rabbi Yossi and the other companions were comforted. Just as the raging waters of the flood were dried in biblical times, the tears of Rabbi Shimon were dried.

The Zohar in a different passage declares:

Observe that from the time when the Temple was destroyed no day has passed without its curses. For as long as the Temple was in existence, Israel performed Divine service, offering up burnt-offerings and other offerings, while the Shechina in the Temple hovered over them like a mother hovering over her children, and so all faces were lit up, and all found blessing both above and here below, and no day passed without its blessings and its joys. Then Israel dwelt securely in their land and all the world was provisioned through them.

But now that the Temple is destroyed and the Shechina is in exile with Israel there is not a day but brings its curses, and the world is under a curse, and joylessness reigns on high and below.

Nevertheless, the Holy One, blessed be He, will in due time raise Israel from the dust and suffuse the world with joy. So Scripture says: Even them will I bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer (Isaiah. 54:7). And just as they went into exile with tears, as it is written, She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks (Lamentations 1:2). So shall they return with tears, as it is written, They shall come with weeping and with supplications will I lead them (Jeremiah 31:9).

Prayer is the classic example of man reaching from below, up to our Father in heaven. Prayer is designed to bring the Shechina, God's presence, down to earth. Moses did not want the separation between man and God to take place at all, therefore, he insisted on our prayers.

But the Zohar insists that repentance coming from the heart full of love is needed to return the Jews to the level which should have been reached via the first fruits offerings. When this happens, joy will become a reality -- everlasting and complete joy.

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