Giving a Fig – Ki Tavo
וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ. וְלָקַחְתָּ מֵרֵאשִׁית כָּל פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר תָּבִיא מֵאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר ה' אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וְשַׂמְתָּ בַטֶּנֶא וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה' אֱ-לֹקֶיךָ לְשַׁכֵּן שְׁמוֹ שָׁם. (דברים כו, א-ב)
In this week’s parsha (Devarim 26, 18) Moshe repeats what HKB”H said in Parshat Yitro, that Am Yisrael is an “Am Segula”. There (Shmot 19, 5) Rashi explains what עַם סְגֻלָּה means and his perush is actually very pertinent to current events (with a new king of England, crown jewels etc.) Rashi says that there are two types of precious stones. One type has monetary value and is used for commerce. The other also has monetary value, but in addition has intrinsic value that makes it special. A king has a great turnover of precious stones in his treasury, but the truly valuable stones are not used for trading, they are stored away in safekeeping in a special vault. Am Yisrael are like that kind of special stone that HKB”H wants to keep for Himself, while the rest of the nations are like the stones used for bartering.
The reason Am Yisrael is the Am Segula is because they proclaimed נעשה ונשמע at Har Sinai, when all the other nations said “Before we consider accepting the Torah, we want to see what is written in it”. By doing so, Am Yisrael were מתקן עולם and the world was reset to the time of Adam Harishon before the sin.
Parshat Ki Tavo is in essence a reenactment of Har Sinai. It is a reaffirmation of the ברית between us and HKB”H just before entering Eretz Yisrael, almost 40 years after Har Sinai. Actually, this reenactment of Har Sinai was intended to take place at Mei Meriva, but because Moshe became angry and struck the rock, it did not.
Just like at Har Sinai the Torah was given on a mountain, here too the Torah is reiterated on (two) mountains – Har Grizim and Har Eival. Just like at Har Sinai there were the luchot, here too the Torah is written on stones (בשבעים לשון). Just like in close proximity to parshat Yitro (Har Sinai) we have parshat Mishpatim with the expanded details, here too we have parshat Ki Teitzei preceding Ki Tavo, with 74 mitzvot (the most mitzvot of any parsha in the Torah). Just like following Matan Torah we have the klalot (although they appear in Bechukotai at the end of Vayikra and not in Shmot, chronologically they were presented to Am Yisrael after Matan Torah), similarly here, after 40 years in the desert, after the reenactment of Matan Torah in Ki Tavo, we again have the klalot. Ezra Hasofer was מתקן that the klalot should be read two Shabbatot before Rosh Hashana so that תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה.
Those are the similarities. However, in Ki Tavo there is one feature that does not seem to be paralleled before Har Sinai and this is the mitzvah of Bikkurim at the beginning of the parsha (later on we will see in fact that this does have a parallel in Shmot). The question is why davka place the mitzvah of Bikkurim here in Ki Tavo, and not in sefer Vayikra where all the rest of the Avodah in the Mikdash is detailed?
To understand this, we need to understand the essence of the mitzvah of Bikkurim.
Anyone who owned at least two (some say three) trees/vines of the שבעת המינים was obligated to perform this mitzvah. When the first fruit began to form on the tree, the choicest two would be marked with a גמי, some kind of (rubber?) band. גמי is rashei teivot for גדולים מעשי ה'. After the fruit had ripened, the owner had the period of between Shavuot and Sukkot to perform this mitzvah. The Mishna in Masechet Bikkurim and the Rambam in Hilchot Bikkurim describe the festivities accompanying the processions of Bikkurim to the Beit Hamikdash in Yerushalayim.
Eretz Yisrael was divided into מעמדות, representatives of the ישראלים (as opposed to כהנים and לויים), who were present at the time of bringing korbanot (Temidin). Just like the Kohanim and Levi’im had their part to play in the avodah, so too was it required that a representative of the ישראלים had to witness the avodah. These מעמדות were divided into a similar structure of 24 בתי אב, just like the Kohanim and the Levi’im. The אנשי מעמד from the ישראלים would rotate their participation in the avodah, just like the Kohanim and Levi’im rotated the avodah between their בתי אב.
It was preferable to bring Bikkurim in large groups (although individuals could also do so), and thus large groups of each מעמד bringing the Bikkurim, would gather in the city of their מעמד and the procession would begin at sunrise, with the head of the מעמד declaring קומו ונעלה ציון אל ה' א-לקינו. The procession was constantly accompanied by an orchestra led by a flute. They would walk slowly, (there was a cap placed on the maximum distance they could travel each day), all the time dancing and singing שמחתי באומרים לי בית ה' נלך.
In front of the procession walked a שור whose horns were covered in gold and decorated with a crown of olive branches. When they reached the Mikdash, this ox would be offered as a Korban Shelamim. On the way you were required to sleep in the open, you were not allowed to sleep indoors for fear of טומאה. Everyone brought their own Bikkurim in a טנא, a basket. The rich used baskets made from gold or silver. Those of lesser means used baskets woven from reeds. You could not appoint a shaliach to take the Bikkurim for you - it had to be done yourself. Even the king had to bring his own Bikkurim (Chazal mention Agripas as an example).
As they approached Yerushalayim, they would touch up the decorations on their baskets which may have become disheveled during the journey, each according to their means (using decorations made from the שבעת המינים only, or, according to the second opinion, also with other accessories, such as doves). As they arrived in Yerushalayim they sang עומדות היו רגלנו בשערייך ירושלים. The officials from the Beit Hamikdash (הפחות, הסגנים והגזברים) would go out to welcome them, according to the size of the group. They would also be warmly greeted by the inhabitants of Yerushalayim who would stop their work and declare “אחינו אנשי המקום <פלוני>, באתם לשלום”.
The orchestra accompanied them until they got to Har Habayit. As they entered Har Habayit they would sing הללוי-ה הללו א-ל בקדשו. Each raised his basket of Bikkurim onto his shoulder and entered the Azara. The Levi’im would then begin to sing ארוממך ה' כי דליתני ולא שמחת איבי לי. With the basket on their shoulder each person bringing Bikkurim would begin to read from הגדתי היום לה' א-לקיך (דברים כו) until the section ארמי אובד אבי. When you get to the section ארמי אובד אבי, you lower the basket from your shoulder, holding it from the sides. The Kohen places his hand under the basket and does הנפה. The person bringing the Bikkurim then reads from ארמי אובד אבי until the end of the parsha, places the basket alongside the Mizbeach, bows down and exits.
As he exits, he says to HKB”H, “I am not leaving until you fulfill my wishes” – an ultimatum! According to Reish Lakish in the Midrash (תנחומא, כי תבוא, א) a “bat kol” would be heard saying “תזכה לשנה הבאה ותביא כהיום הזה”.
As you can see from the above, Bikkurim was a “big deal”, a lot of fuss was made of it and it was an enormous celebration. The mitzvah of Bikkurim is the only mitzvah in the Torah that we are commanded to do השתחויה, to bow down. And the question is why?
Imagine if you were a farmer – for you the mitzvah of Bikkurim makes sense. Your parnasa depends on it. However, if you are a real estate agent and you have only three fig trees in your back yard - just like the farmer who owns 1000 acres of different trees, you are commanded to take your “measly” two figs from the three trees in a basket as Bikkurim to Yerushalayim - just like the farmer with his wagon loads of baskets of the different Bikkurim. For two figs worth a few agurot, you have to close your real estate business for a month! (the time it takes to walk by foot from Kiryat Shmoneh to Yerushalayim and back). During that time, you are losing parnasa, there is a sign on your door “Back in a month”. For what? for two paltry little figs? This is the question asked by the Alsheich Hakadosh.
So you can say that the incentive is that “bat kol” you receive at the end, “See you again next year!” That is a Divine promise that next year you WILL be back in the Beit Hamikdash – you will live another year! The sefer ברוך יאמרו (כי תבוא) says “Isn’t that worth closing your business for a month?” A promise like that directly from HKB”H is worth millions! Billions! You hear that and the minute you get home, you can call your insurance agent and tell him to cancel your life insurance policy - it is no longer necessary!
The Mefarshim say that according to this, the farmers should have lived forever! Every year they get the same one year extension! The answer given is that, yes they did get a one year extension, but during Shmita year, where there were no Bikkurim brought (some opinions say there were), that is when the farmers (who were decreed to die on Rosh Hashana) died.
Obviously this is not the reason for the fanfare, for the disproportionate emphasis placed on this mitzvah. The reason that such a fuss was made of it, is because this mitzvah encompasses one of the building blocks of the world, the reason the world was created in the first place.
The first passuk in the Torah says “Breishit bara Elokim”, that HKB”H created the world because of “Reishit”. There are a few things Chazal say are called Reishit – Am Yisrael, the Torah, Hafrashat Challah, Trumot and Ma’asrot, ….. and Bikkurim. Each reflects a “cornerstone” of the world.
Bikkurim is a pillar of Creation because it encompasses the principle of gratitude – הכרת הטוב. The entire Torah is based on two pillars – recognition and gratitude. Recognition that HKB”H is the One and Only G-d and gratitude to HKB”H for everything He gives us. Every single one of the תרי"ג מצוות is based on one (or both) of these two pillars.
The first destruction of the world came about from lack of gratitude – Adam eating from the עץ הדעת. Eating from the very tree that HKB”H told him not to, reflected ingratitude – a feeling of dissatisfaction that Adam had, which compelled him to take something that did not belong to him. It took 2448 years to fix that disaster, when Am Yisrael, after they left Egypt and reached Har Sinai, declared with total unity – נעשה ונשמע. “We are grateful that HKB”H is giving us the Torah. So grateful in fact, that we don’t even feel the need to ask what is in it.” This was the turning point and the world was restored to its original state of Creation, before the sin. It was the precursor to receiving the Torah (actually re-receiving the Torah - Adam Harishon was originally given the Torah, the Eitz HaChayim, but when he sinned, the Torah was taken away and guarded by angels with “flaming swords” against unauthorized entry, until Har Sinai – Sefer Meir Panim) .
Similarly, here in Ki Tavo, 40 years after Har Sinai, the reenactment of Matan Torah must be preceded with a pure act of gratitude. The mitzvah of Bikkurim is that act. For someone to make that huge, enormous effort for a few tiny figs, the sum value of which is less than 1 shekel - to close their business for a month and walk by foot two weeks in each direction just to take them to the Beit Hamikdash, and not only that, but to do it with enormous joy and celebration - is a pure act of gratitude. The only time in the Torah Am Yisrael are commanded to bow down is with Bikkurim. Bowing down to HKB”H is a symbol of recognition. Recognition and gratitude, the 2 cornerstones of Creation, both embodied in the mitzvah of Bikkurim.
It is not simply gratitude for two figs, but for EVERYTHING HKB”H gives us. For the fact we wake up in the morning, that our heart pumps, that our eyelids blink, that our neurons synapse, that our lungs breathe, that the earth keeps spinning in its orbit, that the sun shines, that our food grows, that our water comes out of the tap. All these things seem mundane and routine to us ….. until something goes wrong with one of them and we then realize how much we take it for granted.
And it is not only gratitude for all these things today, but also for last week, for last year, for 30 years ago, etc. The nussach of Bikkurim goes all the way back to Lavan! - thousands of years before those bringing Bikkurim to the Mikdash! For what? Why not just be grateful for what Hashem gave you this past year? The reason is because our gratitude is a package deal from the minute we are born to the minute we die. Every little chessed that HKB”H gives us along the way helps to shape our future, for example - if I had not failed the faculty entrance exams into dentistry 40 years ago, I would probably have become a dentist (like my parents wanted) and never ended up with the enormous zchut of researching the Lechem Hapanim (and writing this shiur). For all these turning points in our life we need to express gratitude. And it is not only an individual gratitude, it is a collective gratitude. We have to go all the way back to Lavan because that was when Am Yisrael were conceived – the twelve sons of Yaakov. We also need to express gratitude for every event in our history from Lavan and Yaakov on - it all enabled us to be where we are now!
Why is the mitzvah of Bikkurim in Ki Tavo? Because Ki Tavo is Matan Torah take 2. A reaffirmation of Matan Torah just prior to entering Eretz Yisrael. A reaffirmation and acknowledgement that every lesson HKB”H taught us in the Midbar was internalized and learnt.
So why then was there no parallel to Bikkurim in Shmot just before Har Sinai? There was! What do we say before giving the Bikkurim – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט, וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. In Ki Tavo it is just a declaration, in Shmot it was the reality! Leaving Egypt and saying נעשה ונשמע was the Har Sinai version of Bukkurim! Not only that, Bikkurim is in fact also specifically mentioned in Shmot (34, 26) as a one liner (here in Ki Tavo more details are provided).
Just before we leave the Azara we issue HKB”H an ultimatum – “I am not leaving until you fulfill my wishes”. How can we have the gall to give HKB”H ultimatums? And we see that the bottom line is that HKB”H accepted the ultimatum – a bat kol was heard saying “תזכה לשנה הבאה ותביא כהיום הזה”.
Sefer ברוך יאמרו says that from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, we add excerpts to the Amidah. The first is זכרנו לחיים, please HKB”H, give us “life”. A few verses later we say זוכר יצוריו לחיים ברחמים. Now it is not only life, but life with “mercy”. People in a coma have life, they are alive, but what kind of life it that? We ask HKB”H for life with mercy – to be allowed to live – without being connected to machines. Later in the Amidah we say וכתוב לחיים טובים. HKB”H, thank you for life. Thank you for life with mercy. But actually what I am really looking for is a “good life”. What do I mean – a “good” life? So we then give an itemized list – בספר חיים, ברכה, ושלום, ופרנסה טובה, גזירות טובות, ישועות, נחמות, not only for me, but for ALL of Am Yisrael! Where do we get the gall to issue HKB”H with an itemized list? And if you think that’s it, look in the verses of Avinu Malkeinu immediately following the Amidah – there are dozens more! Our chutzpah has no end!
The reason we have the legitimacy to give HKB”H ultimatums and itemized lists – is because we first express gratitude. We close up our businesses for a month and travel for a month with two paltry figs to Yerushalayim to express our gratitude with the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Before we give HKB”H our itemized lists in the Amidah and Avinu Malkeinu, we first have to say Modim! We have to express gratitude. Once we express gratitude HKB”H says, “Now you can ask for whatever you want!”
As we begin to recite Slichot this Motzei Shabbat and approach the final week before Rosh Hashana, the best preparation each of us can do is to sit down with a pen and paper and start writing down all the things that happened to us in the last year, since last Rosh Hashana and to verbally thank HKB”H for each and every one of them, to express our gratitude.
Not only the “good” things, but also the things we perceive to be נסיונות. We must thank HKB”H for them too, even though right now, at this point, we do not understand what we did to deserve them. We must thank Hashem out of the emunah that כל מאן דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד, we must be like Nachum Ish Gamzu and say גם זו לטובה even to the נסיונות we were faced with in the last year, out of conviction that HKB”H put us through them because in some way they were for our benefit. When I failed the dentistry entrance exams 40 years ago I was mortified and thought my life had ended. Now in retrospect I see what an enormous chessed HKB”H did for me. That is the essence of איזהו עשיר השמח בחלקו and the underlying principle of the Lechem Hapanim (Meir Panim, chap. 14), being grateful at every point in your life for everything you have (and everything you don’t have) out of total emunah that it is all for your benefit.
If we approach Rosh Hashana with that outlook, we will then have the legitimacy to ask HKB”H for whatever each of us wants to ask for and we stand a better chance of actually being answered.