The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion
PARASHAT KI TAVO
"Arami 'Oved Avi"
By Rav Michael Hattin
Ki Tavo is a lengthy section that optimistically begins with a description
of the inspiring ritual of the bikkurim, or first fruits, that are to be
presented by the grateful farmer at the Temple in Jerusalem. In an evocative ceremony, the fruits
must be gently raised upon the shoulder and then put down next to the altar, as
the farmer first experientially relives the odyssey of exile and redemption and
then recites a formula that briefly outlines the history of his people. In terse but charged phrases, he is to
recall their descent to Egypt and subsequent enslavement, their outcries to God
who heard their woes and liberated them, and their eventual arrival and
settlement in the land that He gave them as their eternal possession.
parasha then continues with another agricultural observance, this time
concerning the tithing of the crops.
The separated tithes that had been stored up by the landowner in
anticipation of an opportunity for their allocation, must be allotted to their
respective recipients, whether the landless Levi or else the indigent and needy,
and the landowner must then solemnly declare that he has not unlawfully withheld
them from distribution. Here again,
the declaration singles out the land for special mention and then concludes with
a poignant prayer that God sustain His people upon it and grant them its bounty:
"Look down from Your holy habitation in the heavens and bless Israel Your people
as well as the land that You have given us, just as You swore to our ancestors
concerning a land that flows with milk and honey!" (Devarim 26:15).
THE COVENANT AND THE
sections, all unabashedly hopeful in tone, speak both of Israel's inseparable
bond with God as well as of the heavy burden of responsibility that they must
bear as a result (26:16-19). In
essence, Moshe has now completed the review and explication of the
mitzvot of the Torah, and his concluding remarks therefore concern the
people's formal acceptance of the Torah's commands in a Covenantal Ceremony.
"Moshe, the Kohanim and Levi'im addressed all of Israel, stating: 'Be attentive
and listen, Israel, for on this day you have become a people to God your
Lord. Hearken to the voice of God
your Lord, perform His commands and decrees that I enjoin upon you this day'"
is a description of the national assembly to be convened immediately after the
people cross the River Jordan and enter the land. In the valley of Shekhem, located
between the summits of fertile Mount Gerizim and barren Mount Eval, Israel is to
construct a ceremonial altar. Upon
the plaster that coats its uncut stones, the text of the Torah is to be clearly
inscribed, in order to impress upon the people that their success in the new
land will be a direct result of their fidelity to God and to His teachings
(27:1-8). Gathered as one, the
people are then to listen attentively as the Levi'im loudly proclaim the list of
so-called 'Blessings' and 'Curses.'
As each one of the maledictions is pronounced, they are to formally
acknowledge their assent to its articles by solemnly responding 'amen!' The brief and succinct inventory of
misdeeds, in the main detailing concealed infractions concerning idolatry,
breaches of trust, and sexual immorality, is followed in turn by a concise
passage spelling out the national blessings to be enjoyed if the people of
Israel observe the Torah: international acclaim, bountiful crops and healthy
offspring, crushing victory over their foes, and economic stability and
expansion will be theirs (27:11-28:14).
A much lengthier section, describing the dire consequences that will
befall the people of Israel should they fail to hearken to the Torah's words,
concludes the parasha (Devarim 28:15-69).
THE ADMONITION AND THE
PARASHA'S OPPOSING THEMES
"Tochekha" or Admonition climactically catalogues the converse of the
earlier blessings. In progressively
more frightful phrases, Israel's punishment, should they fail to uphold the
dictates of the Torah, is spelled out.
Sickness, drought, famine and defeat will overtake them, for the enemy
will seize their crops, lay siege to their cities, and then cruelly exile them
from their land. Israel will be
violently scattered among the nations, there to serve lifeless gods of wood and
stone in pathetic vulnerability. In
interminable exile they will remain, until such a time as they initiate their
restoration by considering their ways and remembering their God.
thrust of the parasha is thus a glaring study in contrasts – the good and
the bad, the blessing and the curse, the promise of life and the threat of death
– all of it pivoting precariously around the pledge of the new land. Israel's ineluctable destiny, to be
champions of God's teachings and exemplars of His righteous ways, will in the
end be realized – either consensually through the people's judicious exercise of
their own free will and consent, or else coercively through the imposition of
the corrective forces that they themselves will unleash as a consequence of
their own ruinous choices.
THE PASSAGE OF THE BIKKURIM OR
we will consider one single verse of the parasha, taken from the
declaration of the First Fruits described above. The medieval commentaries disagree
concerning the meaning of the passage, and they in turn are in opposition to the
traditional interpretation of the early Rabbis. In the end, though, we will discover
that the themes emphasized in the verse, according to all of the possible
readings, highlight many of the larger ideas that animate the parasha as
you enter the land that God your Lord gives to you, and you shall possess it and
dwell in it. Then you shall take
from the first of all the fruits of the earth that you shall bring from the land
that God your Lord gives you, and you shall place them in a basket. You shall go to the place that God will
choose to cause His name to dwell there.
You shall approach the Cohen who shall be there at that time, and shall
say to him: "I declare this day before God your Lord that I have come into the
land that God swore unto our ancestors to give us." The Cohen shall take the basket from
your hands and place it down before the altar of God your Lord.
shall proclaim before God your Lord: "ARAMI 'OVED AVI. He went down to Egypt and sojourned
there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and populous
nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly
with us and afflicted us, and put upon us difficult labor. We cried out to God the Lord of our
ancestors, and God heard our voice, saw our affliction, our burden, and our
distress. God took us out of Egypt
with a strong hand, an outstretched arm, awesome acts, signs and wonders. He brought us to this place, and gave us
this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I have brought the first fruits
of the earth that you have given me God," and you shall put them down before God
your Lord and prostrate yourself before God your Lord.
shall rejoice in all the good that God your Lord has given to you and to your
household, you and the Levite, and the convert that dwells in your midst
basic schema of the rite is straightforward enough, and can be conveniently
categorized into three discrete elements: 1) the bringing of the first fruits
and their presentation, 2) the declaration, 3) the joyous aftermath. It should be noted that while the
account of our passage is described from the perspective of the individual
farmer, who brings the fruits to God's House and subsequently rejoices with
family and a close circle of associated individuals, the declaration is phrased
in the plural. In it, the
supplicant concisely recalls Jewish national history, placing particular
emphasis on the experience of the enslavement in Egypt, the Exodus, and the
entry into the land. The themes of
the declaration once again pivot around contrasts: few ancestors becoming a
multitude, oppressed slaves achieving freedom, and homeless people acquiring a
land "flowing with milk and honey."
READING OF THE RASHBAM
is the opening words of the declaration in verse 5, however, that are most
cryptic. "Arami oved avi" is
seemingly a description of our ancestor, the very one who is immediately
described as having "gone down to Egypt and sojourned there few in number…" But who exactly is this unnamed
ancestor that is described as an Aramean?
Here, the Rashbam and the Ibn Ezra, two contemporary rationalists of the
12th century, the former from northern France and the latter from
southern Spain, disagree. Rashbam
ancestor Avraham was an Aramean, a nomadic wanderer from the land of Aram, as
the verse states: "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from
your father's house, to the land that I will show you…" (Bereishit
12:1). And further it states: "…and
so it was that when God caused me to wander forth (hiT'U) from my
father's house…" (Bereishit 20:13).
The usage of OVeD and To'E is the same and both describe a
person who is exiled, as the verse states "I have wandered (Ta'Eeti) as a
lost (OVeD) sheep; seek out your servant!" (Tehillim 119:176), or
as in "lost (OVDot) sheep are your people, for their shepherds have led
them astray (hiT'Oom)" (Yirmiyahu 50:6). This is to say that our ancestors came
from a foreign land to this land, and God gave it to us (commentary to
the Rashbam, the wandering Aramean of our passage is none other than our father
Avraham. Hailing from a foreign
land, from the northern reaches of the Euphrates elsewhere known as "Aram
Naharaim" or "Aram that is between the rivers" (Bereishit 24:10, et al),
Avraham heard God's call and set forth for Canaan. The journey was long and arduous, and
having arrived, Avraham and Sarah did not remain stationary, but like proverbial
sheep they nomadically wandered the length and breadth of the central hill
country. And though buoyed by the
recurring Divine promises of offspring and land, those pledges remained
throughout their lifetimes painfully beyond their reach. It would in fact be many centuries
before their descendents began the lengthy process of possessing the land. "'OVeD," then, means "wandering"
and serves as an apt description of our ancestors' travails.
Rashbam's reading is therefore about glaring contrasts: at first we were
homeless nomads, exiled from our birthplace but denied a place to call our own,
forced to seek refuge under the protection of foreign kingdoms that oppressed us
mightily. But then God heard our
cries, liberated us from domination, and brought us into Canaan so that we might
finally strike down roots and build a state, so that finally the weary farmer
might gratefully declare that "now I have brought the first fruits of the earth
that you have given me God!" (26:10).
we adopt the interpretation of the Rashbam, then we must assume that when the
verse states that "My father was a wandering Aramean," and then goes on to
describe how "he went down to Egypt
and sojourned there few in number, and there became a great, powerful and
populous nation," that the latter half of the verse is speaking
figuratively. This is because
although Avraham himself did briefly go down to Egypt when famine struck Canaan
after his arrival (Bereishit 12:10), he did not remain their long and he
and Sarah had no offspring until many years after their return. It was only his descendents that went
down to Egypt for an extended stay and there became numerous, powerful and
eventually the objects of Pharaoh's xenophobic zeal.
READING OF THE IBN EZRA
Avraham Ibn Ezra provides an alternate reading, identifying the Aramean of the
passage with a different ancestor of the people of Israel and providing us in
the process with another aspect of what it means "to be lost":
seems to me that the Aramean is our father Ya'acov. It is as if the passage states that
"when my father was in Aram he was lost," for to be lost in this context means
to be indigent and without means.
Similarly, the verse states "Give strong drink to he who is lost
(OVeD), and wine to those who are bitter in spirit" (Mishle
31:6). It then goes on to indicate
that "He will drink and forget his poverty, and his travail will he no longer
remember" (Mishle 31:7). The
verse therefore should be rendered as "a poor Aramean was my father." The meaning of the matter is that I did
not inherit this land from my father because he was poverty stricken when he
first came to Aram. Also, he dwelt
in Egypt few in number, and only afterwards became a numerous nation. You God brought us forth from slavery
and gave us a goodly land…" (commentary to 26:5).
the Ibn Ezra, the passage recalls the life of our father Ya'acov who was forced
to flee his brother 'Esav's murderous wrath. Sorrowfully and abruptly, Ya'acov left
behind his aged parents, heading northeastwards at his mother's behest in search
of refuge in the home of his wily uncle Lavan (Bereishit 27:42-45). Arriving at Aram, Ya'acov was entirely
without means, at first sustained by his mother's deceitful brother but then
indentured to him in tending the sheep.
Though Ya'acov acquired wives and flocks while in Lavan's employ, true
security and stability eluded him.
In the end, Ya'acov had to take flight from his uncle, who had brazenly
changed the conditions of employment innumerable times, never failing to
capitalize on Ya'acov's vulnerability.
again, our passage provides us with a study in contrasts, but this time it is
not exile versus settlement but rather poverty versus wealth that is
highlighted. The presenter of the
first fruits recalls the distress of father Ya'acov, whose poverty necessarily
produced dependence, and whose dependence encouraged oppression at Lavan's
hands. Ya'acov did in fact go down
to Egypt, after famine in Canaan forced the household to relocate, while Yosef's
position of power and authority as the Pharaoh's vizier created ideal conditions
for their absorption. There the
family remained, but soon the welcome of their Egyptians hosts was
exhausted. A new king arose over
the Two Lands and shortly thereafter Ya'acov's descendents were cruelly
enslaved. Finally, God heard their
cries and redeemed them, eventually bringing them to a land flowing with milk
and honey. Industriously, they
tilled its terraced slopes and the land gave forth its bounty. Now standing before the altar, the
appreciative farmer, his basket laden with a representative selection of his
fields' bounty, recalled the earlier days, when poverty and indigence were his
ancestor's lot. And then solemnly,
he thanked God and prostrated himself before taking his leave.
then, are two readings, one that emphasizes the precious gift of a place to call
home and the other that celebrates the good fortune of prosperity and economic
triumph. Both Rashbam as well as
Ibn Ezra buttress their respective interpretations with other Scriptural
references, but in the end their explanations really need no additional support.
They are so intuitively correct
that proof is unnecessary. No man
who is homeless or else poor can truly be independent. And the blessing of a land, then, cannot
be fully realized as long as one lives under the domination, political or
economic, of overlords. The
Israelite farmer, then, had much for which to be grateful. Cognizant of his ancient history of
expulsion and want, the he thanked God in sincerity for having helped him to
overcome the earlier challenges.
Moshe's life ebbs away, he is careful to not only impress upon Israel their
bright future, but also to remind them of their difficult past, so that they
might never lose sight of God's blessings.
The land of Canaan beckons, an end at last to their own nomadic
wanderings and extended state of dependence, but Israel's success upon its
fertile soil will be an ongoing function of their ability to internalize the
core ideas contained in the declaration of the First Fruits.