Building a Covenant With Hashem

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ki Tavo opens with different ways in which the Jewish people will in the future or are right then reaffirming their relationship with Hashem. Since “relationship” cannot apply to Hashem in the ordinary way (Hashem is so Other that the use of human language is always either incomplete or incorrect), aspects of these covenantal moments offer flashes of insight into what we mean by speaking of a relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem.

The Value of an Unknown Kohen

דברים פרק כו:ג וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַכֹּהֵ֔ן אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִהְיֶ֖ה בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֑ם וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֗יו הִגַּ֤דְתִּי הַיּוֹם֙ לַיקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּי־בָ֙אתִי֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְקֹוָ֛ק לַאֲבֹתֵ֖ינוּ לָ֥תֶת לָֽנוּ:

Devarim 26;3: You will come to the kohen who will be in those days, and say to him, ‘I have declared this day to Hashem your God that I have come the land that Hashem swore to our forefathers to give to us.’

Ramban suggests that the “kohen who will be in those days” refers to the one who happens to be there that week, whose turn came up in the cycle of mishmarot, the 24 groups of kohanim who rotated the staffing of the Beit HaMikdash. The verse would be telling us that just as the on-duty mishmar took the main portion of sacrifices brought in its week, the kohanim of that mishmar also received any first-fruits brought. The farmer should not bring a kohen with him so as to give his bikkurim to him.

The comment is an attempt to explain the seemingly superfluous words “that is in your days.” In answering that specific question, he also touches on an important topic, the kind of relationship non-kohanim Jews were supposed to have with kohanim. Each farmer gives terumah, for example, to whatever kohen he wants, presumably one he knows and likes.

Bikkurim follow a different model, are to be given to whichever kohen happens to be on duty at the Beit HaMikdash when we arrive. Ramban does not explain why it would be this way, but it seems to me that it might be that in certain contexts (especially sacrificial ones, and Ramban explicitly linked bikkurim to sacrifices), the kohanim serve only as stand-ins for Hashem. The particular kohen is supposed to be irrelevant, since we’re supposed to see what we’re doing as giving our bikkurim to Hashem Himself, as it were.

That’s just my suggestion, but if it’s correct, it helps with the next piece of Ramban’s comment.

Missing a Point

Rashi, following Sifrei, had said, “you only have the kohen of your time,” which seems obvious. Ramban notes that he understood this kind of comment when it was made regarding judges (back in 17;9); we might dismiss or denigrate our contemporary judges as not as wise or learned as earlier ones, so the Torah stresses we must listen to them anyway. In what way does that apply to giving bikkurim to a kohen?

Sifrei made the point at slightly greater length than Rashi. R. Yose HaGlili said the phrase was there to tell us that we may give our bikkurim to any man whom halachah presumes to be a valid kohen. He quoted Kohelet 7;10, that we should not fetishize the past, saying how much better the old days were.

Ramban understands them to be saying that even if we later find out that the kohen was not in fact a valid kohen, we will have fulfilled our mitzvah.

Since I see a much simpler explanation of Sifrei and Rashi, it’s arresting that Ramban did not. He understood and accepted the Torah’s need to stress that we not carp about the quality of our current Torah leadership as compared to those of previous generations, but seems not to have seen a way that could be true of kohanim as well.

Especially given that kohanim are stand-ins for Hashem, that the ceremony of bikkurim involes the farmer addressing the kohen as Hashem’s representative, I could imagine Jews deciding there were better and worse kohanim, and looking down on their current kohen in comparison to the greats of the past. Aharon or Elazar, I could hear Jews saying, were “real” kohanim; if I only had the merit of delivering bikkurim to themthat would have been a worthy bikkurim experience. To give them to this guy? Pfeh.

That’s what Sifrei and Rashi seem to me to understand the Torah to be forestalling; the Torah wants us to know that it’s not for us to judge the qualities of kohanim. That also fits well with Ramban’s own insight that we had to deliver our bikkurim to whatever kohen was there, that we should not bring one of our own, because it’s not for us to decide who represents Hashem in this transaction.

Ramban seems not to have seen that, since he reached for this other reading. Which is really interesting, because if it feels obvious to me, what am I missing that made it non-obvious to him?

Can We Tell Gd?

The farmer is told to say “I have said this day before Hashem your Gd.” Ramban struggles with the idea of haggadah la-Shem, saying to Hashem. He first suggests that it refers to the fruit, that the offering give tangible expression to the farmer’s declaration that Hashem has brought him to the Promised Land, that the farmer holds those promises fulfilled, and offers thanks for that.

Then he offers a second option, without explaining what was wrong with the first. I think it’s because he finds the whole idea of declaring things to Hashem problematic, since Hashem knows all. His first thought was that the “declaration” isn’t primarily verbal, it’s the demonstration.

The second option gives up on the idea of telling Hashem Himself, as it were, and says that the telling is to the kohen and others assembled. We usually translate higgadeti la-Shem as “I have told it to Hashem,” but Ramban says the lamed could mean “for the sake of His Name.”

It’s not an impossible reading, although not the plainest one, and seems to me an example of where Ramban is bothered by the implications of a verse and seeks another reading to avoid what troubles him, in this case the idea that we would tell anything to Gd, Who knows all.

The Pervasiveness of Accepting Hashem

דברים פרק כו:יז אֶת־יְקֹוָ֥ק הֶאֱמַ֖רְתָּ הַיּ֑וֹם לִהְיוֹת֩ לְךָ֨ לֵֽאלֹהִ֜ים וְלָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֗יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֨ר חֻקָּ֧יו וּמִצְוֹתָ֛יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֖יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֥עַ בְּקֹלֽוֹ:

Devarim 26;17: You have declared Hashem today to be your Gd, to go in His ways, keep His decrees, commandments, and laws, and to listen/obey His voice.

Ramban thinks that when we declared Hashem to be our Gd, that encompasses accepting the Torah in its broad sense, including all its interpretations, inferences, and the novel ideas later Torah scholars appropriately derive from it. Doing that elevates Hashem [a reminder that there’s some element of reciprocity, that we “help” Hashem when we fulfill the Torah], makes Hashem our only Gd, which means we cannot/must not concede the existence of any competitive power.

The other phrases in the verse have broader meanings as well. “Going in His ways” means doing that which is right and good (a higher standard than that which is legal or acceptable), and performing kindnesses for our fellows.

When it comes to listening to Hashem, the verse speaks both of fulfilling commandments and listening to His Voice; Ramban offers two reasons for why they are separate categories. First, he suggests that the Voice we listen to would be that of prophets, who bring information from Hashem that is not part of the formal legal framework of Torah and mitzvot. In that version, the statutes, commandments, and laws covers all of halachah, and the Voice covers information about what Hashem “wants” that we receive by other means.

Or, it’s all mitzvot [here, too, Ramban reaches for a second reading without explaining the problem with the first one; it might be that he thinks the verse is focused on codified law]. The three categories before the reference to Hashe’s Voice were all mitzvot aseh, obligations, and the Voice was where Hashem stops us from certain actions, the prohibitions.

Hashem’s Side of the Covenant

דברים פרק כו:יח וַֽיקֹוָ֞ק הֶאֱמִֽירְךָ֣ הַיּ֗וֹם לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּר־לָ֑ךְ וְלִשְׁמֹ֖ר כָּל־מִצְוֹתָֽיו:

Devarim 26;18: And Hashem has declared you this day to be His special people, as He had told you, that you will keep all His commandments.

Ramban picks up on the end of the verse, which he reads as saying that our keeping the commandments is part of how Hashem treats us well, part of Hashem deciding that we’re His special people. That’s similar to what happened at Sinai, where Hashem elevated us, made us great, different, and special by the Giving of the Torah.

In fact, our receipt of the Torah gives us insight into actions and paths preferred by Hashem, an awareness of the way to be successful other nations do not have (as in Tehillim 147;19-20, verses we say every day, that Hashem has not done this for any other nation, not shown them His laws.)

Embedded in the comment is the assumption (I am not questioning it, I am articulating it, so that we not miss it or its implications) that knowing Torah and halachah isn’t just an obligation, a commitment we must fulfill. It is a path of life that helps us function better in Hashem’s world, that gives us an awareness and understanding of deep truths of the universe. A perspective of Torah often lost today, to the detriment of those who lose it.

When it comes to covenants with Hashem, the difficulties of language mean we come at it from different routes, heading towards one goal. Bikkurim and our ha’amarah, our mutual avowing of connection, are the ways of building that relationship with Hashem we had space for this time.

About Gidon Rothstein

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