Parashat Ki Tavo opens with two commandments which are connected to the land. Bringing the First Fruits (known as Bikkurim) (1-11) and the Elimination of Tithes (Biur Ma’asrot) (v12-15).
As one would expect, both of these commandments require action – the first fruits of the ground are to be taken in a basket to God’s designated place, and handed over to the priest there. In the third year the owner of the property must give a proportion of the produce as a tithe that will go to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow. So far so normal. But the bible goes on to require speeches to be made while these two commandments are to be carried out, and, unusually for Torah, it gives the actual texts to be said. Biblical prayer is usually spontaneous, rising out of the immediate needs of the moment, and rarely recorded in any detail at all, yet here we have two separate declarations given verbatim, and the recital of these two passages have become counted in rabbinic tradition as positive commandments in their own right.
‘Mikkra Bikkurim’, the recital of the declaration of the first fruits, contains within it phrases that eventually were imported wholesale to become part of the Pesach Haggadah, going over the history of the exodus and the terrible painful situation that had preceded it, and personalising that history. Vidui Ma’asrot, the Confession of Tithes, focuses on the completed observance of the mitzvah of giving tithes, but goes on to ask God ‘s help for the future. These two declarations begin with simple statements of action, but then move way beyond the actual observation of the commandments in the present moment to add meaning and weight. They don’t stop with acknowledgement, but instead push the speaker and the hearer forward, beyond thanksgiving and into a place of deepened understanding. Bikkurim takes the speaker into the past, the ancient ancestral past of a time when the land was not so settled and fruitful, of the time of Jewish suffering and slavery in Egypt, and of the redemption from that position. It roots the speaker in history, and deliberately contrasts the situation of the speaker – their security in their own land, their economic and agricultural prosperity – with the insecurity, poverty and misery of the people in earlier times.
This then is followed by the Vidui Ma’asrot, which ends with the words “look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey”
It is a prayer which notes the history – but only in terms of a passing nod to the ancestral promise that God would deliver to them a land fertile and prosperous. More than anything this is a petition for the future, a request for God to pay attention to the land and the people, a wish for a bright and untrammelled destiny.
Four mitzvot are contained in this section. Two of them require the physical transference of the wealth of agricultural prosperity from their owner to others less economically secure – first the sacrifice of the first fruits of the ground, which is to be given to God via the priesthood of that time; secondly the giving of tithes to those who have no means of supporting themselves – the landless stranger, the ones who have no economic supporter to care for their produce, the Levites. The food is to be shared out, no-one is to be hungry or uncared for in this system, and no one is to believe that they have absolute rights of ownership just because they are working this land at this time.
But the other two mitzvot are speeches, and they have become far more prominent in the text somehow than the actions to which they refer at the beginning. The speeches provide a continuum of historical experience; they locate the actions of giving in a system of time and give meaning to the present in a religious dimension as well as a chronological one. They provide a worship experience almost unprecedented in Torah. But they also provide a context and a philosophical understanding we can learn from today.
Taken together the two speeches trace time and interleave the lonely and painfilled vulnerability of the ‘arami oved avi– my father was a wandering Aramean’ – into a world where God can be asked to look after, bless and care for Israel, both people and land. Simultaneously wealth can be acknowledged and rejoiced over while the reminder of the fragility of any economic security is overtly stated. A dialectic is set up between the history of Israel and the role of God. It becomes clear that without full awareness of the history leading up to this moment there can be no understanding of the present, and certainly no awareness of what the future might hold. Our history impacts upon us and informs our present. Any awareness of future must be rooted in past as well as current experience.
At its most simple, the thanksgiving and joy for any prosperity of today can only be properly achieved when accompanied by an understanding of past sadness and pain; only by awareness of the depths of depression can one understand the heights of exaltation. But there is much more to the two declarations than this. They cry out for us to examine our lives and our history before beginning to draw conclusions about our present existence; to understand where we and others are rooted before making plans for the future.
We are approaching the last week of the month of Ellul, traditionally a time for examining our lives, for considering our situations and for trying to make changes for the better in our existence. We cannot do this in a vacuum. We have to take into account our history, all the experiences that have fed into who we are today, the sad as well as the happy, those that cause us pain as well as those of which we feel proud. We have to accept the reality of what has been our own story, before we can begin to see where we might journey on towards. And like those who declared the Mikra Bikkurim and the Vidui Ma’asrot we have to see the place of other people in our story, and to look for the presence of God in it too, even if only to ask God to notice and pay some attention to our lives.
Looking at the texts of the two prayers, maybe we also have to be able to say that we have taken some action already, have recognised our responsibility to act in our world to make it a better place. These prayers remind us that while we examine our lives, we must see ourselves as part of a whole greater than ourselves. What we do in the world out there has impact, how we behave towards others matters – and maybe most importantly how we see ourselves in relation to others – and them in relation to us – be it in an historical or a geographical perspective, in a theological or political or even a societal dimension, that is the essence of our understanding. Our lives cannot be limited to here and now. Our existence cannot be so narrow as only to focus on those we know, or those we care about personally. Judaism has always taught us to operate in the broader world and at this time, when we are liable to focus down into ourselves religiously we should remember the imperative built into the two declarations which begin the sidra of ki Tavo.