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Torah Studies: Ki Tavo

Torah Studies: Ki Tavo

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Our Sidra contains a description of the ceremony of offering the first-fruits of the land of Israel, and gives the prayer that was to be recited by each person as he made his offering. One peculiarity of this prayer, is the way it singles out two miracles in particular—Jacob’s deliverance from Laban and the Exodus from Egypt. Why were these and only these to be mentioned? The Rebbe concludes that they had a special relevance to the ceremony of the first-fruits, and it analyses the significance of this offering and its counterpart in our own time.

1. Two Miracles

Our Sidra begins with the procedure to be followed when bringing the first-fruits to the Sanctuary as an expression of thanksgiving to G‑d:

“And you shall speak and say before the L-rd your G‑d: ‘An Aramite destroyed my father, and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number…And the L-rd brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…And he has brought us into this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first-fruit of the land which You, O L-rd, have given me….’”1

The phrase “an Aramite destroyed my father” is taken (by Rashi and others2) to refer to Laban’s intention to destroy Jacob and hence the whole Jewish nation. Thus the bringing of the first-fruits was accompanied by his acknowledgment of G‑d’s deliverance in saving the nation from destruction, once at the hands of Laban and again by the Egyptians, and of His grace in bringing them to a land “flowing with milk and honey.”

But if the intention of this prayer was to mention G‑d’s kindness, why were only these two instances cited? There were many other saving miracles—the division of the Red Sea, the battle with the Amalekites, the Manna and the Well in the wilderness, the wars with Sichon and Og, etc.

Perhaps we might argue that only Laban and the Egyptians threatened the total extermination of Israel, and so the deliverance from these two adversaries was more fundamental than from any of the other miracles.

But even on this reasoning, there would still be a serious omission: The delivery of Jacob and his children from his brother Esau. Had Esau acted as Jacob feared (“lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children”3) there would equally have been nothing left of the Jewish people.

What is also strange is that Rashi does not raise this question. For the omission presents a difficulty in the literal understanding of the text, and it is the burden of Rashi’s commentary to deal with all problems at this level. And from Rashi’s silence on the point, we can conclude that there is in fact no problem—that we, by our reasoning or by taking into consideration Rashi’s previous remarks, can understand why Jacob’s deliverance from Esau was inappropriate to the prayer said over the first-fruits.

2. Real and Potential Danger

Perhaps the explanation is that Esau did not constitute a real danger. For when he met Jacob, after their years of estrangement, he did him no harm. The threat he posed lay in Jacob’s mind, in his anxiety and apprehension.

Laban, it is true, also did no harm to Jacob. But his intention to do so was accounted by G‑d as if he had actually done what he planned. Rashi, in explaining why the Torah says of Laban “an Aramite destroyed my father” instead of “an Aramite sought to destroy…” says, “Because he intended to do it, G‑d accounted it to him as though he had actually done it, for as far as the nations of the world are concerned, the Holy One, Blessed be He, reckons intentions as deeds.” This also explains the emphasis of the verse of the fact that Laban was an Aramite. On the other hand, Esau was a Jew, albeit an apostate.4 As a result, his intention to harm Jacob was considered as a possible rather than an actual danger, and Jacob’s deliverance on this occasion does not merit special mention in our prayer of thanksgiving.

Yet we are still left with a dilemma. Either it is right that we should mention deliverance only from a situation of real danger in which case we should include only the deliverance from Egypt (where the Jewish nation was afflicted and oppressed). For in the last analysis, Laban did no actual harm to Jacob. And if G‑d counted his intention as if it had been realized, this only applies to Laban’s punishment, and has no bearing on the situation of Jacob. Or, on the other hand, we should mention all the kindnesses of G‑d, even if they only took the form of deliverance from possible danger; in which case we should include the episode of Esau in our prayer.

We are forced to conclude, then, that the two saving miracles against Laban and the Egyptians (and only they) have a special connection with the command to offer up the first-fruits of the Land.

3. A Place of Settlement

The offering of the fruits became obligatory on the Israelites only after they had entered the Land, conquered, allocated and settled it.5

From this we can see that the commandment was not simply a thanksgiving for G‑d’s gift of the Land, but primarily for having settled in it as a permanent home. It was only then that they could rejoice in it with an easy mind; only then that they brought the first-fruits.

The fruit expressed gratitude for the “land flowing with milk and honey” and for the chance of inhabiting it permanently “to eat from its fruits and be satiated with its goodness.”

It was therefore to emphasize this point that two examples were chosen where our ancestors were living in a place of permanent settlement and where—from that seeming security—enemies arose to destroy them and were defeated by G‑d. These two cases point firmly to the gift of a permanent land (“And He has brought us into this place”)from which there arises only goodness and sustenance.

It was precisely these two examples, Laban and Egypt, where the miracle took place where those ancestors had made a settled home. Jacob stayed in Syria 20 years, and the Israelites lived in Egypt for 210 years. And the wording of the prayer, “An Aramite destroyed my father, and he went into Egypt.” Emphasizes at the outset how it was that from the very places of settlement the threat of destruction arose. On the other hand, Esau confronted Jacob when he was traveling, and the other miracles that were sent to the Israelites came when they were journeying out of Egypt or wandering in the wilderness. They have no relation to that special feeling of gratitude that the Israelites expressed on coming to a settlement in a land that was theirs that overflowed with goodness.

4. The Offering and the Prayer

What is the Chassidic analysis of the offering of first-fruits?

It is explained in Or Hatorah6 that the fruit of a tree is akin to the soul as it is enclothed in the body, and that offering up the first-fruit is an act whose significance is the binding of the incarnate soul with its source in G‑d. It is written in Hosea, “I saw your fathers as the first-fruit of the fig-tree.”7 So too is the “father” of the soul—its heavenly source—like a first-fruit. This binding of the soul to its source has two parts: The raising of the earthbound (the offering of the fruit) and the drawing down of the heavenly (the accompanying prayer).

Thus the prayer suggests the idea of the drawing down of the holy. Jacob’s journey to Laban was a descent (from the spirituality of Beersheba to the corruption of Haran8) and so too was the Israelites’ journey to Egypt. And it was these two descents which precipitated the two great acts of grace and deliverance which saved the Jewish people from destruction.

The significance of this extends to the life of every Jew. It is not enough for the Jew to rest content with his own spiritual ascent, the elevation of his soul in closeness to G‑d. He must also strive to draw spirituality down into the world and into every part of his involvement with it—the world of his work and his social life—until not only do they not distract him from his pursuit of G‑d, but they become a full part of it. These are his first-fruits, and by dedicating them to sanctity he is fulfilling the purpose for which the world was created—to be made by man into a dwelling-place for G‑d.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. XIV pp. 93-98)

Footnotes
2.
Cf. Targum Yonatan, ad loc.
4.
Kiddushin, 18a.
5.
Cf. Rashi, Devarim 26:1.
6.
Parshat Ki Tavo, p. 1040 ff.
8.
Cf. Torah Or. Likkutei Sichot, Vol. I, beg. Vayetze.
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R.Yitshak Bilman Cranford September 11, 2014

The present portion contains prayers- in this respect they are the only ones in the Torah-this prayers are cast in a fixed form. The recitation upon presenting the first fruits and the Declaration concerning the tithe are very specific words (26-1) Over here the spoken words, by this I mean that the word of God which is conceived in a persons hearth, and formed by his tongue and spoken by his mouth, they become spiritual force. Man arouses his thoughts and lends definite expression to truth in his hearth. Now that God bestow His blessings upon that person and his soil, which has produce the fruit crop, and he has lived to see the day on which he brings them to the House of Hashem, it behooves him to stir up his hearth by verbal utterance, which becomes spiritual force, which make him understand that all this bounty has become to him from the Master of the Universe. I don't know whether such a prayer exists today? Reply

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