APPRECIATION, ATTUNEMENT, AND ATROPHY: PARSHAT KI TAVO
Shira Smiles shiur – 2021/5781
Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein
Parshat Ki Tavo contains the beautiful mitzvah of bikurim, when the farmers would bring baskets with their first fruits to the Beit Hamikdosh, offer it to the kohen and declare before Hashem, “An Aramean tried to destroy my forefather. He descended to Egypt… few in number, and there he became a great nation...The Egyptians… placed hard work upon us. Then we cried out to Hashem… and Hashem took us out of Egypt… He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land… And now, behold! I have brought the first fruit of the ground that You have given me, O Hashem!” The instructions conclude with, “And you shall be glad with all the goodness that Hashem, your God, has given you…”
While we can certainly understand expressing gratitude for the bounty of our orchards, our commentators question the necessity of reciting our national history at this ritual and for the additional command to be joyful, specifically with bikurim, the bringing of the first fruit.
Rabbi Pincus notes that all firsts have a special status in Judaism and all belong to Hashem. Hashem calls Bnei Yisroel beni bechori Yisroel/Israel, My firstborn, a title that traces back to our enslavement in Egypt and extends from there to all our firsts, from our own firstborn sons to our first fruit [and even to the first of our dough/challah, CKS].
It is important to remember the past, writes Rabbi Schlesinger. Throughout history, movements come and go, from imperialism to socialism to communism to Messianism – each believing that it will discard the past and be the utopia of the future. Many Jews have bought into these ideas, often leading them. But without a link to the past, the vitality and hope these movements promise is doomed to failure. The future history must trace back to its beginning, to what makes the future relevant. The past must be acknowledged or the foundation for the new is weak. Israel traces its national history back to our forefather Jacob, and to the Egyptian cauldron that formed our character. We trace our State, adds not to the Balfour Declaration or to the compassion of nations after the Holocaust, but to God’s promise to our forefathers.
The connection to our past is equally valid and necessary in our personal lives as in our national life, adds Rabbi Zeitchick in Ohr Chodosh. When you are proud and joyful of your roots, you also develop a sense of humility and compassion for others less fortunate. The past must always remain part of our present and a foundation for our future.
Both Letitcha Elyon and Rabbi Preis in Mizkeinim Esbonan focus on our obligation for hakorat hatov/acknowledging a good that was done for us. When we bring the bikurim to the Beit Hamikdosh, we are acknowledging that all good comes from Hakodosh Boruch Hu. We’ve come today, with the blessings Hashem has given me in the present and our hopes for the future, but we recognize that our gratitude must extend back to all the good that Hashem, and indeed anyone, has done for us in the past. A debt of gratitude can never be repaid. “Thank you” should not be a mere verbal formality, but should be a feeling that remains in our lives for eternity.
Unfortunately, human beings hate feeling indebted to others, and the yetzer horo capitalizes on that emotion and tries to eliminate our feeling of gratitude toward others. If we are to retain the feeling of gratitude, we must remember the circumstances and the hardships we endured until we arrived at this point. If someone helped us find a job, we will continue to feel gratitude as long as we remember the hardships and insecurity of being unemployed; if we’ve tried to find our “bashert” for several years, we remain grateful to the one who introduced us to each other if we keep remembering the dashed hopes of so many failed suggested matches. Our gratitude is dependent on our memory of the surrounding circumstances and reliving our feelings of angst or pain before the arrival of our benefactor. While we do not bring bikurim today, we do recite this passage every year as part of our Passover Seder. As the pilgrim bringing the bikurim did, so should recite this passage aloud to remind ourselves of the pain of the enslavement so that we can appreciate the present and the future.
All Hashem wants from us for all the good He bestows upon us is gratitude, writes Rabbi Frand, for anything else we “give” Him comes from that which He has given us.
We have an obligation to give thanks for favors we received from previous generations. How often do we feel an obligation to repay a favor to the son or grandson of someone who had benefited us in the past? There are multiple stories of our gedolim who traveled long distances to repay a favor to an elderly person, or who have taken the child or grandchild of an old benefactor under their wing. In fact, by referring to these deeds as gemilat chesed, we are meant to define the term as repayment of chesed. How much more gratitude do we owe Hakodosh Boruch Hu for all the chesed He has bestowed upon us, writes Rabbi Broide in Sam Derech. If we now recall our history and all of the chesed Hashem did for us throughout our history, from the days of the Patriarchs until today, we will be filled with immeasurable joy.
It is not enough to merely say thank you. One must be sincere in one’s gratitude. The very name of our people, Yehudim, translates as “the grateful ones,” points out Rav Scheinerman. The bikurim ritual is meant to sensitize us not only to a relationship with Hashem, but also to other people, to the realization that others may have less than we do. When we acknowledge our indebtedness to Hashem and say thank you to Him, we have in essence achieved the purpose of the Torah.
Rabbi Wolbe notes that doing a favor or giving a gift differs from giving charity. While we do not want to embarrass the receiver of charity, we do want to recognize the giver of a gift so that the recipient can properly thank the giver. It is the articulation of gratitude that promotes love. In this same context, one must express gratitude to a spouse or even to one’s children when they have done something for us. And do not stop there. Say thank you to the service people in your life, the mailmen, cashiers, and trash collectors. This may be their job, but you are still deriving benefit. Indeed, we need to be grateful even for the very ability to show and express gratitude, adds Rav Zeidel Epstein.
We have much more to be grateful for than we even realize, writes Rabbi Ezrachi in Birkat Mordechai. While Hashem is certainly running the world as a unified entity, He is additionally setting His eyes on each of us individually, extending His Personal Providence over each of our lives. The proof for God’s supervision over each of us individually can easily be discerned from our sojourn in Egypt. During the plague of blood, an Israelite scooping himself a glass of water from the Nile would indeed get water while the Egyptian would draw forth a glass of blood. This same Divine Providence is evident throughout Jewish history.
But we can take this one step further, adds Rabbi Ezrachi. When Hashem redeemed Bnei Yisroel from Egypt, He looked into the future descendants to see who would be worthy of being born Jewish. Similarly, when Yaakov met his brother Esau and thanked Hashem for saving him, and certainly when Yaakov was fleeing his Aramean father-in-law Laban, it was not only Yaakov who had been saved but also the millions of Jews who were born since then. Hashem has invested His spirit in each of us, in each unit of creation, even in the lowly pomegranate I now bring as a symbol of my gratitude to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. The knowledge that Hashem watched over me in the past, watches over me in the present, and will continue to watch over me personally in the future is a source of great joy.
We understand that we are unworthy of Hashem’s benevolence. The Shvilei Pinchas, citing the Sefas Emes, cites a verse that defines our double relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu. Tehillim 100:3 says, “Know that Hashem, He is God; it is He Who made us v’lo enachnu/and we are His…” Interestingly, the word sounded and read as v’lo can be written either of two ways. While it is written in the text with an aleph, we translate it [read it] as if written with a vov. The alternate reading would render the translation as v’lo enachnu/we are not [worthy of being] His. By combining both spellings, we get an acronym for the month of ELUL, the month dedicated to repairing the relationship so that we will again be worthy of being His.
For us to achieve that status again would require a nullification of ego and self. The Shvilei Pinchas continues by explaining that since the beginning of time, darkness precedes light, growth and renewal can only come about from the fuel provided by destruction. A seed must totally decay before the plant begins to grow. Total nullification of self through sleep provides the energy for a renewed, productive day.
It is precisely this point that we must internalize, continues the Shvilei Pinchas. We are totally helpless on our own, and it is only through Hashem’s love and chesed that we can achieve salvation; only from the ayin/nothing of self will Hashem create the yesh/existence. When the Jew realizes he is powerless without Hashem’s Divine Providence, then he can hope for salvation.
We are living in a world of chaos and only Hashem knows the outcome. This may very well be the overriding lesson of these times, of this evolving pandemic.
When everything seems dark and chaotic, when all sorts of terrible things are happening, when we feel the despondency over the decay and deterioration of the world, let this be the dark before the light, let this be the nothingness that leads to the renewal of redemption with the coming of Moshiach. Let us realize our insignificance as the small pomegranate we bring to Hashem, let us reach the level of לא אנחנו so that we can become His, the לו אנחנו.