The Exhilarating ‘First Fruits’


In this week’s parsha, there are twice as many curses as in Bechukotai [Leviticus 26:14-43]. Ramban, drawing from the Zohar, says that although the 48 curses listed in Leviticus refer to the destruction of the First Temple and the ensuing Babylonian exile, which ended after 70 years, the 96 curses in Ki Tavo apply to the destruction of the Second Temple and our present-day situation, which has lasted nearly two thousand years. Nevertheless, both Ramban and the chasidic commentator Shem Mi-Shmuel sense that in Ki Tavo there is the better deal.

Given the choice between something with a good beginning and an unresolved ending, or the other way around, most people would opt for the good ending. Yet the Shem Mi-Shmuel thinks differently. What is important is to make clear what the Jewish story is all about: the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, with joy at its heart. Therefore, this week’s reading starts out strongly, marking the relationship as inherently upbeat; everything else — the curses, the exile, the desolation — is a departure from the primal order in which joy sets the tone.

Ki Tavo begins with a description of joy in its most physical and universal form — joy in the Land and the mitzvah of the “first fruits.” “And you shall rejoice because of all the good which the Lord your God has given you” [Deuteronomy 26:11]. In joy there is a Divine element, an extension from the individual to the transpersonal and beyond that is possible only through the Land, suggests Ramban. It is the condition that makes the Jewish people flourish and the covenant a reality. According to Ramban, the Land is not merely some external entity but the knot that connects us to the depths of our soul.

Candlelighting, Readings
Shabbat Candles: 7:09 pm
Torah: Deut. 26:1-29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22
Havdalah: 8:08 pm

While making the rounds of his orchard, the Jewish farmer may come across a ripening pomegranate or date. Rather than sampling his produce, the farmer ties it with a string and declares it “the first fruits.” When the time comes to pick it off the bough or from the ground, this declaration is repeated, and the fruit is set aside in a basket. At the moment of greatest joy, the farmer must show restraint in order to achieve something even higher.

He is not alone in doing this. From all four corners of the Land they come with choice fruits. The Mishna describes this national explosion of joy in idyllic pastoral terms. Representatives from every corner of the Land stream toward Jerusalem riding gilded, wreathed animals, surrounded by flocks of birds and carrying decorated wicker baskets of first fruits. They would break up their journey in the main towns, and sleep in the streets without entering the homes of the locals so as not to disturb them. In the morning, the supervisor would say: “Rise up! Let us go up to Zion, to the house of the Lord our God!”

Those who were close would bring dates and grapes and those who were far would bring dried figs and raisins. A bull would go before them, its horns plated with gold, an olive wreath around its head. As flutes played, they approached Jerusalem, sending a messenger ahead and adorning their bikkurim. The officers of the city would stand up to greet them: “Our brothers from [naming the hometown] come in peace!” Raising his basket to hand it over in front of God and the public, the farmer would acknowledge: “Today I have come into the land” [Deut. 26:3-10]. After the priest accepts his gift, he tells the checkered history of the Jewish People, from their slavery to their nomadic existence and miraculous homecoming.

Through the gift of first fruits, God’s bounty is given to the nation to be enjoyed as a seal of the covenant, formalizing their partnership.

But what about those curses with which Ki Tavo and Bechukotai are associated?

According to the Zohar, while the curses in Bechukotai were in response to crimes such as idolatry, immorality and murder, for which redemption was only partial, those in Ki Tavo were not curses at all, but rather concealments of love and great blessing. During the Second Temple era, Israel did not commit any of the offenses listed above. What brought on calamity was emotional attrition and divisiveness leading to groundless hate. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God from joy and wholeness of heart” [Deut. 28:47]. However dreadful the curses may seem, it is within our power to rectify them.

Is Ki Tavo the Jewish “Ode to Joy”? Observance precisely of the laws to do with the Land, of which the bikkurim (first fruits) is an example, will result in a state where “blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the field.” Says Rav Kook: “Blessed shall you be in the city because you are blessed in the field.” Courtesy and equality will reign between different sectors of the population because the agricultural laws of the Torah teach that we all depend on one another. Though some may be more involved in physical labor and others are more intellectually or spiritually engaged, no one will exploit or demean anyone else; on the contrary, everyone will acknowledge the contribution that others make to the whole of Am Yisrael.

The agricultural command of bikkurim is the antidote to baseless hate, and the recipe for wholehearted joy, allowing the highest Divine blessing to emerge from under the cover of curses. 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”