Parshat Ki Tavo
This week our Torah portion gives us very specific instructions about certain responsibilities of the Israelite nation once they cross over the Jordan River and settle in the Promised Land. This first mitzvah described takes place only after the Children of Israel will settle in the land and plant crops and then harvest them. This won’t happen right away. It will take a number of years for the Israelites to control the land and completely settle it and then begin planting and harvesting. But following the first successful harvest the first fruits of that harvest, called the bikkurim, will be offered to a priest before the altar of God. The Torah and Moses imagine a future time, a time of bounty fulfilling the covenantal promise.
And then the individual farmer must recite very special words. These words recount the collective history of the Israelite people. The years of conquest and taming of the land may take years. Yet this ceremony is designed to help the individual Israelite farmer see himself in the line of descendants from Abraham, a part of the covenant now fulfilled through him!
We don’t know enough about the actual archaeological evidence of the conquest of the Land of Canaan. The Bible mentions the conquest of Jericho and Ai but these cities only existed later in history. So we can’t be sure of exactly the time frame of capturing the land. But once the Israelites established their nation on this land the offerings of their harvest must be in part dedicated to God. The words in this week’s portion that begin:
“My father was a wandering Aramean, and with just a few people he went down to Egypt and sojourned there. And there he became a great nation, mighty and numerous. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; and they imposed hard labor upon us. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors; and Adonai heard our plea and saw our affliction, our misery and our oppression. Then Adonai took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, with signs and with wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Adonai, have given me.”
These are words that we still recite today but now not at the first harvest (Shavuot) but in connection with our Passover Seder. Our tradition has preserved an early memory for all of us to partake in. It preserved it to keep us connected to the land of our ancestors, to their customs and to covenantal promise made to Abraham. This same passage that we read in this week’s portion is the central section of the Haggadah.
As my teacher Professor Noam Zion writes in his “The Family Participation Haggadah” by Noam Zion and David Dishon, (p. 81)
“Why does the Pesach Haggadah’s central midrash focus on the story of the first fruits, which is associated with Shavuot? Perhaps the point is that Pesach is not only about the move from slavery to freedom, but from economic dependence to productivity, from the vulnerability of the alien to the security of the citizen.”
In Parshat Ki Tavo are instructions for when the Israelites become citizens of the land. We preserve this memory to connect us to that land and to the idea of transformation of the individual from foreigner to resident citizen. The offerings of the first harvest to God help us affirm that we have put down roots and transformed ourselves and the Land.
At this time of year we are thinking about our own transformations and the process of Teshuvah. What might we harvest and offer as a gift to God as we enter a New Year?