Parashat Ki Tavo

Zionism And First Fruits

The speech that farmers recited when bringing their first fruits to the Temple forms a central part of the Passover retelling of the Exodus and articulates the Zionist message.

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"My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, and they gave to us hard labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me.

"And you shall place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household."

Whether we read these verses in synagogue as part of the weekly portion, or in Jerusalem as we bring our gift of the first fruits, or at the Passover Seder, as a central part of the Haggadah, we cannot help but be struck by the strength, beauty, and clarity of the message expressed. The sense of thankfulness for having come home after years of difficult wandering ("He brought us to this place and gave us this land"), of being rooted not only in a geographical place but also in a society, a faith community, and in a nexus of gratitude, caring and charity ("And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me," "And you and the Levites and the strangers among you shall rejoice") is strong, and is emphasized by the recurring use of three words: "bo" (to enter, arrive at, or bring), "aretz" (land), and "natan" (give).

Various forms of the word "bo"--to enter, bring, arrive--are used seven times in our section, referring to God's bringing the Jewish people out of Egypt and into Israel, and paralleling that with the farmer entering the city of Jerusalem and bringing the first fruits to the Priest in the Temple. Our yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, during which we bring the firstfruits, and rejoice with "the Levites and the strangers among you" parallels the kindness of God's bringing us out of Egypt and into the Holy Land.

"Aretz”--land--is mentioned five times in the section (and "makom"--place--is mentioned twice). This focus on place, on the rootedness and sense of belonging that the Israelite is meant to feel, is thus emphasized, and presented as a crucial element in the farmer's story. When we repeat this story every year at the Passover table, we are stating that it is not only the Jew who stands in the Temple in Jerusalem who is meant to have this strong sense of place. Every Jew, everywhere, every year, is meant to retell his national tale, his own and his people's' history, from the same 'place,' from a sense of rootedness in the land that God has promised to our forefathers and to us.

"Natan" is used negatively when referring to the Egyptians--"and they gave to us hard labor," and positively, in terms of God's generosity--"...the land the Lord your God is giving you," "He brought us to this place and gave us this land." It is also striking that the section of the Torah which immediately follows this one deals with certain laws of the tithes which "you shall GIVE to the Levite and the stranger and the orphan and the widow." The generosity of God in giving us the Land of Israel is contrasted with the cruelty of Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and is meant to be echoed by our own generosity to others.

The major difficulty in these verses is in the farmer's opening words, which is where the Passover Haggadah begins quoting this section, as mandated in the Mishnah in Tractate Pesachim: "Arami oved avi”--"my father was a wandering Aramean." Who is this father, why is he called an Aramean, and why was he wandering?

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Rabbi Shimon Felix

Rabbi Shimon Felix is the Israel Director of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel. He lives with his family in Jerusalem, and has taught in a wide variety of educational frameworks in Israel and abroad.