Parashat Ki Tavo

Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
September 20, 2008 / 20 Elul 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, assistant vice chancellor, JTS.

Remarkably, no pedestrian injuries have been recorded to date. New to his wheels, my two-and-a-half-year-old son travels the sidewalks of New York City on his scooter (an advance warning to anyone who walks anywhere between West 73rd and 80th Streets) at a pace that alternates between bucking bronco and NASCAR driver. In parenting, there is little that I have found more challenging than the almost civil-disobedience level of independence that he demonstrates. While responsibility (for not only him but anyone else on the sidewalk) would require my hand to be perpetually on either his shoulder or the handlebars, any attempt to regulate his scooting is greeted by that ever-defiant, “I do it myself!”

You have to hear it to truly comprehend the psychological depth of his sovereignty, but my son’s emphatic tone touches a deep tension in this week’s parashah.

At the beginning of Parashat Ki Tavo, we read of the mitzvah of bikkurim, the instruction to dedicate the first fruits of the harvest when the Israelites enter the land of Israel. After the harvest, this offering is placed in a basket and brought to the Temple for dedication and offered with the statement, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (Deut. 26:3).

At the root of the declaration is the recognition that the land is God’s purview—and that its product is thanks to God. We may till the soil, plant the seeds, work the land, and harvest the crops, but the underlying assumption is that it is God that ultimately provides the sustenance. Whatever the human action, the bikkurim offering acknowledges that God’s role is primary. This is supported by the script that accompanies the offering:

You shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: "My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 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 Lord, have given me." (Deut. 26:5-10)

As Moshe Weinfeld discusses in Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic School, the actual object of the offerings discussed in Deuteronomy is subordinate to the intention of the one making the offering (page 213). Here, the intention is clear: all comes from God.

Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the Slonimer rebbe, in Netivot Shalom, picks up on the intention implied with the bikkurim offering. “This is the soul and fundamental principle of the mitzvah of bikkurim—we attribute what is first to God. Through this we dedicate everything that concerns us to God” (157).

By dedicating what is most dear to us to God—our hard work, our effort, our success—we make the largest sacrifice. By stating that our efforts are due to the grace of God, we reduce the focus on human agency and attribute the success to divine providence.

If my two-year-old son rebels against my guiding hand on his scooter, surely we can understand any unenthusiastic reaction to the dedication of the bikkurim. In the modern world, many find it difficult, if not impossible, to attribute our success to divine providence.

This tension does not go unnoticed in Judaism. I have always enjoyed how it manifests itself in the blessings we recite at the beginning of Shabbat. At kiddush, over the wine, we recite a blessing that praises God for being the Creator of the fruit of the vine—yet we drink a human product, wine. With hamotzi, over the two challot, we recite a blessing that praises God for bringing bread from the earth, attributing the human product to God. Either one is difficult to accept on its own; the treasure of Judaism is that the two are combined in a ritual setting.

Judaism presents a tension to negotiate—both in reading the mitzvah of bikkurim and more personally in the blessings we recite over wine and bread. This is opportunity for religious self-expression. Each of us occupies a particular place on the human agency/divine providence continuum, and Judaism challenges us to recognize that both have a role and a voice in our lives—in some way.

As we prepare ourselves to get comfortable in our seats at shul for an extended period of time over the High Holidays, may we take that opportunity to begin to learn our own comfort zone on the divine providence/human agency spectrum.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.