Ki Tavo

  • Rav Yaacov Steinman


The last few parashot have been "mitzva-intensive" - Ki Teitzei has 74-76 mitzvot alone. Hence, on first glance, the opening sections of our parasha seems to be a natural continuation. Why then does the parasha not begin from the "brit arvot Moav," which will occupy most of the parasha, with the two sections dealing with bikkurim and ma'aserot (26,1-16) appended to Ki Teitzei?


A. Daily Mitzvot and Conclusion Mitzvot


A more attentive reading of the opening of this week's parasha reveals a very different tone than that of the list of mitzvot which precedes it from last week's parasha. The mitzvot of Ki Teitzei, like most of those of Sefer Devarim, can be grouped under the title, "How you should conduct your lives in Eretz Yisrael." (In fact, the question of the order and connection of the mitzvot in Ki Teitzei poses a nearly impossible problem). The two mitzvot at the beginning of Ki Tavo present a different atmosphere - not what to do as part of life in Israel, but - after you get there, and after you succeed in achieving your goals, then there are two mitzvot which conclude this entire story, which celebrate, as it were, the successful conclusion of what all the other mitzvot were all about.


In other words, the central body of the Torah has ended in Ki Teitzei, and we are now in the concluding section. This is characterized primarily by the great "brit" of the tockecha (Ki Tavo), Nitzavim, and Ha'azinu, but the two mitzvot of Ki Tavo should also be seen as part of this last section. Mikra Bikkurim and Vidui Ma'aserot (as opposed to the mitzvot of bikkurim and ma'aserot proper, which have been presented earlier in the Torah) are not so much part of the content of daily halakhic life, as they are responses to the conclusion of the cycle of halakhic life. Now that you have received the Torah, and are about to fulfill it in the Land of Israel, you are commanded concerning the ceremony that will eventually be performed to celebrate your success in carrying it out.


In truth, this transition has begun in the final concluding section of Ki Teitzei:


Remember that which Amalek has done to you.... And it shall be, when HaShem your God shall give you rest from all your enemies who surround you in THE LAND THAT HASHEM YOUR GOD IS GIVING TO YOU AS A PORTION TO INHERIT (nachala lirishta), you shall eradicate the memory of Amalek from beneath the heaven; do not forget (25,17-19).


This clearly is a special command, to be performed AFTER the completion of the long process of settling the land. This is immediately followed by the opening of our parasha: "And it shall be that when you come to THE LAND THAT HASHEM YOUR GOD IS GIVING YOU AS A PORTION, AND YOU INHERIT IT, and settle on it" (26,1). The unmistakable impression is that a progression is being set up, for mitzvot to be performed AFTER everything that needs to be taken of - conquest, settlement, peace - is arranged satisfactorily. Now we come to the mitzva of mikra bikkurim.


(Halakhically, this is not so. The mitzva of eradicating Amalek is postponed until after total conquest - however, bikkurim applies immediately after the 14 year period known as "sheva shekavshu ve-sheva shechilku." Nonetheless, I am pointing out the futuristic association of these two mitzvot, as indicated by their position in the Torah, the language used to introduce them, and their relationship to the mitzva of Amalek. As we shall see, this distinction between the nature of the mitzva, and its halakhic application in time, will be present for vidui ma'aser as well, and even more clearly).


B. Mikra Bikkurim


This is born out by, and helps to explain, the "mikra bikkurim," the declaration made when bringing bikkurim, which is the main purpose of this parsha (since the obligation to BRING bikkurim has already been cited in Mishpatim, Ki Tisa, and Korach). The reading has a distinct feeling of summation, conclusion, and finale. "I am stating today, to HaShem your God, that I have come unto the land which God has promised our forefathers to give us." What does it mean, to state that one has indeed come unto the land? Is this not a sort of release note, which we give to God, stating that He has indeed fulfilled completely the promise He made, and the "debt," so to speak, is discharged? The promise made in Sefer Bereishit has been hanging, waiting - and now, at some future point in time, there is a FORMAL statement made by the Jew that the story has reached its culmination, the cycle completed. Notice the verb, "higadti" - I declare. One does not mention this point, or feel it, or think about it - the statement has the character of a formal declaration (Halakhically, it must be recited word for word, in the original Hebrew). It constitutes the graduation ceremony, the formal release of all tension, that comes naturally after everything has been completed. Again - the fact that this ceremony is performed every year does not negate this character. Once a year, the Jewish farmer returns and considers where he has come from and how he has succeeded, he has fulfilled the dream and reached the promised land.


He then places the firstfruits before the altar and recites ("anita ve'amarta" - notice the double verb, a clear indication of a ceremonial, formal recitation). This recitation consists of a summary of Jewish history (had there been no sin, it would basically have been a complete summary of all Jewish history) - We went down to Egypt, we were oppressed, we called to God, He heard us and took us out of Egypt, and finally He brought us to this land (where we are now, and whose fruits we are bringing now), a "land of milk of honey." In conclusion: "And NOW (i.e., in conclusion), see, I have brought the first fruits of the earth which you have given me, HaShem." In other words, the deal is fulfilled - You brought us to the land, we have brought you the fruits of that land. The Torah concludes, "And you shall rejoice in all the good which God has given you..." - the entire ceremony highlights that destiny has been fulfilled, history brought to its culmination, we have come all the way from oppression and slavery to the good land, to rejoicing and satisfaction - thank God!


C. Vidui Ma'aser


I hope I am not presuming when I say that most of us vaguely associate the next parsha - vidui ma'aser - with the same theme. You finish a cycle of mitzvot hateluyot ba'aretz and make a recitation to God. But even a cursory examination of the next parsha reveals that the contents of the recitation called vidui ma'aser is nearly the complete opposite of mikra bikkurim.


First of all, here too we have a new mitzva which refers to the conclusionary aspect of the settlement on the land. The mitzvot of ma'aserot have all been delineated previously in the Torah. Here a particular recitation is being commanded, and in this case, it is detached temporally from the regular mitzva of ma'aser. "When you conclude the tithing of all the tithes of your crops in the third year, the year of the tithe, and you have given to the levi, the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and they have eaten in your gates and been satiated. You shall say before HaShem your God...." (26,12-13). When you have finished the three year cycle of tithing, both ma'aser ani and ma'aser sheni (and the ma'aser ani has not only been given to the poor, but they have eaten AND BEEN SATIATED"), then, after all has been done, you make the following declaration.


What is the content of the declaration of ma'aserot? Mikra Bikkurim recapitulated the goodness of God, who took us out of Egypt and gave us the good land. Vidui ma'aser has the opposite content - we recite, almost as a boast, the list of our accomplishments regarding ma'aserot - I have cleaned out the hallowed things from the house, and given it to the levi and the poor, "according to all of your commandments that you commanded me; I have not transgressed one of your commandmenor forgotten." The list continues, culminating in the sweeping statement - "I have listened to the voice of HaShem my God, I have done everything that I have been commanded."


And what is the conclusion to this list of accomplishments? In bikkurim, a list of God's goodness lead to the conclusion that "I have brought the first fruits." Here a list of my accomplishments leads up to the conclusion, "Look down from your holy habitation, from the heavens, and bless your people, Israel, and the earth that you have given us, as you promised our forefathers, a land of milk of honey."


Bikkurim then has the structure: God has done His part - we now do our part.


Ma'aser has the opposite structure: We have done our part - now You do your part.


If we summarize the compound structure, the Torah in this parsha describes a double ceremony, defining how the fulfillment of the Divine promise for the Jews should be reflected on their part. On the one hand, fulfillment means receiving all the good of the land - and hence mandates a response of recognition and acknowledgment on our parts, by bringing a token, a part of that very same good, to God who has given us all. On the other hand, living in the land is not only a process of receiving - it's meaning was expressed in OBLIGATIONS, towards the Levi, the orphans and the poor. Full fulfillment means that we have discharged those obligations. Possessing the land is an opportunity to serve God in that way. If we have completely exhausted that possibility, it enables us to turn to God for the future - bless this blessed land, as you promised our forefathers, a land of milk and honey.


In fact, the Ramban points out that the phrase, "a land of milk and honey" does not appear in Bereishit. The land was not promised to the forefathers using that terminology. Nonetheless, the term was used twice here - both for mikra bikkurim and vidui ma'aser. I would like to suggest that it refers to the fullness of the land - the land as a fulfillment and completion. Hence, although God promised the forefathers merely to give them "this land," the giving, when complete, after you have gotten your portion as an inheritance, and settled it (26,1), and when, after three years, you have completed to tithe all that needs to be tithed, performing all the commandments perfectly, that giving is a land of milk of honey, overflowing with promise and blessing. This explains the abbreviated form, "the land which you promised our forefathers, a land of milk and honey (see Ramban). The structure deliberately obscures whether God promised a land of milk and honey - the promise was not explicit, but the fulfillment of God's promise in full implies "milk and honey."


From here, the parsha moves directly to the signing of a new covenant between God and the Jews. There are two more mitzvot in the Torah, both part of that covenant - Hak'hel, a once-in-seven year recreation of Sinai, and the mitzva to write a sefer Torah, the individual's personal acceptance of the giving of the Torah. These also are not mitzvot of every day life, but meta-mitzvot, summing up the entire Torah, as the two mitzvot of Ki Tavo were meta-mitzvot in the sense that they put the seal on the entire life of Torah in Eretz Yisrael.


Further Points:


1. Read the four verses which follow the mitzvot we have discussed (26,16- 19). They are among the grandest verses in the Torah, in terms of their succinct summary of the Jew-God relationship. What is the connection to the mitzvot which precede them. Notice, that in terms of the content, they would seem to belong more to the FOLLOWING parsha, as an introduction to the brit. This is even supported by the language used, specifically the repeated reference to "hayom" - a word which will be repeated numerous times in the next two parashot, but one that has no relevance to bikkurim and ma'aser, which are FUTURE mitzvot. Nonetheless, the verses seem to indicate that Moshe's speech continues directly from ma'aser to these four verses, with the next section introduced by "Va-yetzav Moshe..."; i.e., a new speech. Explain.


2. Why are the heavens called "maon kodshekha" (your holy habitation) in 26,15? Why does the verse seem to describe God as peering down on the earth from far away?


3. Bikkurim is mikdash oriented - they are brought to the mikdash and placed next to the altar. This is stressed in the verses see 26,2-4; 10. Ma'aser is home oriented - the verse stresses that it was eaten "in your gates" (26,12). How does this relate to the themes of the two declarations?