by R. Gidon Rothstein
Parshat Ki Tavo: Bikkurim and Tochahah, First-Fruits and the Outcomes of Obedience or Disobedience
Arami Oved Avi and Bikkurim
The parsha opens with the bikkurim ceremony, where farmers bring their first fruits to the Beit HaMikdash. The Torah tells the person bringing them to go to the kohen “asher yiheyh ba-yamim ha-hem,” who will be in those days, 26;3. Ramban suggests the redundancy—to whom else would the Jew give the bikkurim?–was to tell Jews they should not try to pick the kohen for bikkurim, such as to give it to someone they already know, but just give them to whomever they encounter when they come to the Temple. This contrasts with terumah, where the Jew is very much allowed to choose who gets it.
In saying this, Ramban explicitly chose against following Rashi, who adopted the reading of Sifrei¸ the verse wants us to know we have to be satisfied with the kohen of our time. Ramban says he understood the idea when it came to judges, 17;9, because people might compare the judges of their time to the legendary ones of yore, find the contemporary ones wanting, and use that as an excuse to ignore them. He sees no reason for the verse to have to do that with kohanim.
He instead prefers R. Yose HaGlili’s view, also in Sifrei, the Torah is assuring us we can give bikkurim to whomever halachah presumes to be a kohen. Ramban thinks he means if we later find out the kohen was invalid [such as, he discovers his mother was not fit to marry a kohen, making him a hallal], the person who gave the bikkurim has still fulfilled the mitzvah.
It seems to me Ramban understands the Torah to intentionally de-emphasize the kohen. Especially because of the speech the Jew makes as he gives the bikkurim, I think Ramban thought the Torah was adamant the kohen himself have no active role. He could not be someone we chose, had to be whoever came our way, and as long as everyone thought him a valid kohen in the moment, the ceremony had achieved its purpose.
The person bringing the bikkurim first says, “higadti ha-yom la-Shem Elokecha, I have declared to the Lord your Gd this day.” Ramban wonders what it means to tell or declare to Gd, Who knows all before the person has said it. His first idea is that presenting an offering is a more tangible form of declaration; much as a sacrifice actualizes an experience, the act of offering bikkurim is a higher form of declaration, counts as a declaration even to Gd.
He offers a second option, I think because this one does not address the original problem, that it does not make sense to speak of declaring to Gd. He suggests instead the haggadah referred to here is not la-Shem, to Gd, but for the sake of Gd. The farmer’s declaration in front of the assemblage is calculated to enhance Gd’s Name and Glory in the world.
The first step of the bikkurim offering, for Ramban, is to focus it on Gd, by minimizing the kohen and by making a declaration enacted in action or that brings all those around the person to recognize Gd more than they had.
Lavan Was the Arami
Our Pesah haggadot treat Lavan as the subject of the first phrase of the story the farmer bringing bikkurim tells. He says “Arami oved avi,” and the Haggadah takes it to mean an Aramean (Lavan) tried to destroy my forefather (Ya’akov). Onkelos agreed, writing Lavan Arama’ah be’a le-ovada yat Abba.
Rashi took it further, reminded us of the next idea in the Haggadah (taken from Mechilta), Lavan attempted to destroy the entire people (who were all with Ya’akov at the time of their encounter). Rashi chooses here also to point out Gd treated Lavan as if he had succeeded, because with non-Jews who worship other powers (but not Jews), Gd is metzaref mahshavah ra’ah le-ma’aseh, counts plans to act a certain evil way as if they had done so.
Rashi does not tell us whether he thinks that is Gd being unusually strict with them, because thoughts should not count as actions, or kind to Jews. It seems like a punishment, their choice of a non-Gd path hurts them in more ways than the idolatry itself.
The Two Mountains
The Torah tells the Jewish people to enact a ceremony of blessing and curses when they reach Israel, half the people standing on Mt. Gerizim, half on Mt. Eval (in the Fall 1992 edition of Tradition, R. Michael Broyde and Steven Wiener demonstrated the configuration of tribes came as close as possible to putting equal numbers of Jews on either mountain).
Rashi, 27;12, says the kohanim, Levi’im, and Aron would stay at the bottom, turn towards Gerizim and announce the blessing for fulfilling an element of the Torah, with the whole people responding Amen, and then turn to Eval and note the curse for violating that element, the whole people again responding Amen.
Rashi’s version of the ceremony—where we split the people, yet everyone answers both blessings and curses—seems to me to emphasize the importance of being clear about the line between good and evil. The tribes on Eval weren’t better or worse than the ones on Gerizim, they were there as representatives of the people. As blessings and curses were announced, it was to be obvious blessing went with Gerizim conduct, curse with Eval conduct, and everyone signed off on their awareness of the difference, with everyone realizing nothing about their tribe predicted where they would end up.
The Fuller List of Blessings and Plagues
After describing the ceremony, the Torah launches a more extensive presentation of the blessings to be had for obedience to Gd and the curses for disobedience. On both sides of the equation, 28;2 and 28;15, the Torah predicts they will ba’u alecha, come upon you, ve-hisigucha, and reach you. Probably because it is odd to say something will reach you after it has come to you, translations write something else, like take effect or accompany you.
Onkelos both times has ve-yidbekunach, will attach to you. He implies a certain inertia in the status of the Jewish people—if we’ve reached a state of blessing, it sticks with us, maybe longer than we deserve. And, Gd forbid, in reverse.
The Impact of Suffering
The Torah has a long list of punishments, one of them that our children will be given to another nation, our eyes seeing it, ve-kalot aleihem kol ha-yom, strain for them constantly. Rashi understands it to mean we will be waiting for them, where Onkelos writes ve-yisufan biglalehon, will be destroyed because of them, treating the word kalot as the word for to end something. For Rashi, the verse is telling us our continuing emotional state, for Onkelos the physical damage we will suffer from that emotional state.
Suffering also narrows our focus. A later verse says that in the morning we will wonder who would give us night, in the night, who would give us morning. Rashi identifies the longed-for night and morning as the previous ones, the Torah telling us troubles will constantly worsen.
It doesn’t explain why the Torah phrased itself in terms of our reaction. If the troubles indeed are getting worse, of course we would long for the past. I think Rashi’s reading means we will be part of the problem, will always be looking back as matters worsen, instead of thinking of ways we might alleviate the problem in the now (such as by confronting where we are, and turning to Gd in prayer, as other verses in the Torah say we eventually will).
Putting Exile in Perspective
Ramban points out the Torah goes into detail on how life will turn worse and in response to our disobedience, only later mentioning exile. He argues, 28;42, the suffering predicted in this section will happen in Israel. Once Gd exiles the Jews, they will only suffer subservience to other nations, being forced to help those who worship powers other than Gd.
In exile, we will have support from Gd (as Vayikra 26;44 promised), be as fortunate or more so than other nations. Ramban thought history had validated the Torah’s predictions, the exile after the first Temple a fulfillment of the tochahah in Vayikra, the current continuing one warned by our parsha. I happen to find the idea convincing, and an example of how difficult it can be to spot the Torah coming to fruition [a topic I find particularly relevant to our current coronavirus challenges, but not something I can wrangle into this discussion].
[Here’s a hint for the interested: in Vayikra, Gd says if we go with Him be-keri, He will go with us be-hamat keri. Rambam at the beginning of Laws of Fasts says be-keri means treating world events as happenstance rather than directed by Gd, and the punishment for doing so will be hamat keri. Imagine if Jews and the world treated some significant problem in nature as just nature, were sure the sole solution lay in natural means; what would hamat keri look like? Could it maybe be nature changing to evade the natural means humans thought would surely solve the problem?]
This Very Day
I could spend all our space on the blessings and curses, except Rashi and Ramban turn our attention to Torah, an area where we have more clear control. The parsha twice goes out of its way to say some event happened ha-yom ha-zeh, this day, 26;16 with Gd commanding the Torah and 27;9 the people becoming a nation tied to Gd by covenant.
In both cases, Rashi infers a push for a sense of freshness, for Jews to treat each day of being Gd’s nation, each day of study of Torah, as if it were the first. He does not say why, although I feel it must be about excitement and dedication.
The parsha also speaks of ha-yom ha-zeh, this day, in 29;3, where Moshe Rabbenu says Gd had not given the Jewish people the heart to know until that day. To explain what had happened that day, Rashi reports a tradition it was the day Moshe gave a Torah scroll to the Levi’im (as we will see in 31;9), and the rest of the nation complained about that tribe being given more of a share in the Torah than the rest of them. Moshe rejoiced at their concern, saw them as having that day achieved the proper awareness of, concern for, and desire to be included in the world of Torah.
Earlier in the parsha, Ramban had told us what was involved in committing to be Gd’s people, the people of the Torah. The verse, 26;17, said the Jews had tied themselves to Gd, to walk in His ways, observe all His commandments, hearken to His Voice. Ramban thinks it means we took on Torah in its broadest sense, all the interpretations, inferences, and novel ideas later Torah scholars would derive.
Going in Gd’s ways means doing what is right and good in every situation, a higher standard than what a court would ratify as legal or correct. Listening to Gd’s Voice includes what prophets tell us (information separate from the legal framework, ideas of what Gd wants from us then that we might not have gotten from Torah and halachah alone).
When the next verse says Gd bound us in a covenant, to be a special nation, Ramban still sees it as speaking more about us than Gd. Because we will have the Torah (and prophets, although Ramban does not stress them), we will have more insight than other nations into the actions and paths Gd prefers, will have a leg up in finding our ways to success.
The parsha starts and ends with ways we can see Gd and Gd’s role in our lives, can see how our obeying Gd brings us to wonderful places, to full harvests we celebrate with bikkurim, to a relationship with Torah that shows us the successful path in life. In between, we are warned about what happens if we stubbornly insist we know better, find paths the Torah did not want from us, and insist those are the best ways to live.