The Farmer And The First Fruits


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:01 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 26:1-29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Havdalah: 7:59 p.m.

This is Elul, the month before Rosh HaShanah, when we focus on developing new habits, new ways of doing things, so that we can start our year off right. Parshat Ki Tavo has a number of elements that can assist in this endeavor.

Ki Tavo opens with one of the few liturgical declarations that a layperson, not a priest, is required to state. (The other is in Shoftim, the declaration of the elders and judges about their innocence if an unknown corpse is found within their city limits.) In Ki Tavo, regarding the first fruits, after the Kohen “takes the basket from your hand, laying it before the altar of the Lord, your God,” the farmer of the first fruits shall call out, “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and [my forefather] went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation” (a verse familiar from the Haggadah). Then, continues the farmer, God “brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me” [Deut. 26:5-10].

According to my teacher Jeffrey Tigay, in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Deuteronomy, the first fruits declaration shifts the focus on the “role of God in nature” to “the role of God in history,” providing the individual reciting it an opportunity to make a connection between his personal experience as a farmer bringing this fruit and the larger experience of what God has granted to the Israelites in history. It creates the habit of giving God a central role in the fate of both the individual and the collective whole.

One of the other three “positive’ commandments found in this week’s parsha are “vi’halachta be’drachav,” to walk in God’s ways [Deut 28:9]. The Sefer Ha’hinuch, a medieval cataloging of which commandments are found in each Torah portion, describes this command as “to be like the ways of the praiseworthy God that are good and upright.” The question is how can a mortal get anywhere near the qualities of a Divine being? Are there any habits we can inculcate to help us do this? Turns out the Sefer Ha’hinuch mentions four.

If we are merciful (rahum), compassionate (hanun), righteous (tzadik) and holy (kadosh) like God, we will be able to begin to approximate these Divine qualities.

Of course, this is much easier said than done. Most of the time, as humans, we prefer to take the easy way out and yell at someone else when we are frustrated with a situation rather than being merciful or compassionate and allowing for the possibility that it is our own failing or a circumstance beyond control that created the situation. Alternatively, we attribute our successes wholly to our own abilities rather than stepping back and imbuing a situation with holiness by bringing Jewish tradition and God into it as the farmer bringing the first fruits is instructed to do.

The season of Elul is the time to begin to take Judaism personally, as the ceremony teaches us. The section containing the mitzvah of walking in God’s ways is an enumeration of blessings that comes right before the largest section of curses in the Torah. The theology of this very explicit notion that good things happen to good people and bad things to bad people is incredibly fraught and problematic for us moderns who are fairly sure that the world does not still operate according to the biblical paradigm. However, a more useful model would be to say that we need to work as hard as we can to be the best people we can be, and in so doing we will be able to find assistance from God, and God’s inspiration. to be kind, just, compassionate and merciful.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra says the farmer’s declaration is of a piece with the verse, “if you keep God’s commandments and walk in God’s ways.” Ibn Ezra says that “if you keep” means in the heart, and “if you walk” refers to deeds. This combination and cognizance of the spiritual and the active leads to the inculcation of good habits that is our goal in this season of Elul.

Beth Kissileff is the editor of the forthcoming “Reading Genesis” (Continuum Books, 2013), a collection of essays by academics on the Biblical book of Genesis. She has taught Hebrew Bible and English literature at the University of Minnesota and at Smith, Carleton and Mount Holyoke Colleges.