“Which You, O Lord, Have Given Me”

Ki Tavo By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Aug 21, 2013 / 5773 | Holidays

Having underscored the role of memory at the conclusion of last week’s parashah (remembering the cruelty of Amalek), Torah now accentuates the importance of appreciation in Parashat Ki Tavo. Once the Israelites settle the Land of Israel and plant their crops, they are commanded to place their first fruits in a basket, bring them to the devotional site, and present them to the priest. As the tithes are set before the altar, the Israelite recites a historical narrative: “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and populous nation . . . The Lord freed us from Egypt and brought us to this place . . . a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now present the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me” (Deut. 26: 5–10). What can we learn from the presentation of the first fruits and its accompanying declaration?

Professor Ze’ev Falk writes,

The biblical excerpt related to the “first fruits” and tithing confessional represent early forms of a prayer of thanksgiving which is the most important prayer. It is believed that much of the sacrificial rite was performed in silence—that is with the notable exception of first fruits, tithing, and sacrifices of thanksgiving. The individual offering a thanksgiving sacrifice uttered words of appreciation. Other thanksgiving prayers include the blessings over food and over the land (Deut. 8:10) and also the Haggadah of Passover is an extended prayer of thanksgiving that accompanies the eating of the Passover sacrifice (Exod. 13:8). The same story appears in both the declaration related to the first fruits and the Haggadah. The essential content of the Passover Haggadah is based on the midrash found in this week’s parashah concerning the first fruits. Allusions to other prayers of thanksgiving at the time of offering sacrifices are found throughout the Book of Psalms. (Divrei Torah Ad Tumam, 462)

Falk’s reflections on the mitzvah of hava’at bikkurim, the bringing of the first fruits, are striking. First, though it seems that most of the sacrifices were offered in silence, the thanksgiving sacrifice seems to be the notable exception. Expressing appreciation (through sacrifices or first fruits) involves not only reciprocity but, more importantly, verbal and spiritual reflection. One savors the moment, recalling the challenges that one faced to reach a point of thanks and hopefulness.

Second, Falk rightfully points out that the passage quoted in this week’s parashah serves as the basis for the Passover Haggadah and, more than that, the entire Haggadah liturgy may be viewed as an extended psalm of thanks. Clearly, freedom is deserving of a telling and retelling—especially a narrative that showcases the extraordinary miracles and hesed wrought by divine will. As we find ourselves in the midst of Elul, the season of repentance (and appreciation), let us take the Torah’s model and Professor Falk’s wisdom to heart. May the utterances of our lips guide us to reflective moments of appreciation for all of the gifts in our lives.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.