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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Ki Tavo

Parashat Ki Tavo

Elul 16, 5780 – September 5, 2020

Torah Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1 – 29:8

Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Ki Tavo, which is Hebrew for “when you enter.” The primary focus of this portion is Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land – and, upon doing so, many laws are listed that must be performed to reaffirm the covenant between Hashem and the people. Among these ceremonies is the commandment of first fruits – in Hebrew, bikurim. These were a selection of crops that were brought by farmers to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem to be placed near the southwest corner of the altar. This mitzvah, though, applied only to the first-ripened fruits of the seven species of the Land of Israel: wheat, barley, figs, grapes, olives, dates, and pomegranates. They were brought to the Beis HaMikdash for Shavuot to celebrate the harvest of grain. But now, in the absence of the Temple, this mitzvah can no longer be observed. Even still, we can still think about how to preserve this ceremony metaphorically – in terms of sacrificial worship. For example, bikkurim has become a fundamental part of the Passover Haggadah – the Seder plate is understood to be a symbolic representation of the bikkurim basket.[1] In such a respect, it’s an opportunity to express gratitude to Hashem and to express thankfulness for what we are given. “In Hebrew, this is known as hakarat hatov (recognizing the good).”[2] So if we are to think historically about the literal fertility of the Land, we can also think metaphorically about the fertility of our lives and the spiritual act of giving away some of our labor as a form of thanksgiving. This may seem illogical because the giving of the first fruits was contingent upon Hashem giving the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. And without the Land, there is no performative act of tithing our agricultural produce to signify our appreciation for ecological bounty. But it’s important to note that, like the Israelites in the desert, we too are in a position of “strategic weakness.”[3] The contemporary parallel is that the ecological stability of this world has yet to be realized. We, too, are unsettled – and quite divided – in terms of our trajectory towards ecological sustainability. We, too, are sitting – metaphorically – on the outskirts of the Land. But, perhaps, we can think about bikkurim as a paradigm shift; there is an opportunity to manifest an ecological awareness by implementing sacrificial worship as a form of ecological service. By giving away something of ourselves, we have a chance to gain a stronger footing in the path towards long-term sustainability.

In (26:5-10), after we read about the bringing of first fruits, an additional mitzvah is given whereby one must mention “the kindness of the Omnipresent.”[4] This declaration mentions two events of Jewish history – the Egyptian exile and Lavan’s attempt to destroy Ya’akov. In the famous Torah commentary by Baruch HaLevi Epstein, known as Torah Temimah, an explanation is given for why these two events are connected to the giving of the first fruits. In short, these are both events that occurred during a time of settlement. Other moments of salvation – such as the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the manna, or even Ya’akov fleeing from Esau – are not relevant here, because “these events occurred while on a journey.”[5] The point here is that we can only “rejoice with all the goodness” (v.11) when we are completely settled, which is a precondition for the ability to express thanksgiving for the Land. And this is significant because, during settlement, we can create the conditions whereby “strategic weakness” can be transformed into strategic strength. In this way, the Jewish construction of place reflects an orientation to the Land embodied by many indigenous peoples throughout the world. A sense of place is always subject to a localized awareness because we cannot identify with a place until we are embedded fully within it – living there, sensing it, and perceiving its wisdom. An ecological consciousness demands that we fully embed ourselves in place by drinking local water, eating local food, learning about the local flora and fauna, and wedding our story to place. And we can’t understand how to make decisions for ourselves, or even about ourselves, until we understand the Land. In Western conceptions of place, we consider that relationship reversed because we are able to live under the illusion that we can live outside of place. For example, we have our food shipped in from all around the world, so we don’t actually need to learn what native plants are edible. When you strip away that illusion, and you’re not actually rooted in place, that’s a position characterized by “strategic weakness.” The Torah is teaching us how important it is to settle – that this is an act that not only situates us for survival but is deeply connected to concepts of identity, morality, and even perceptions of history. Because the modality of our strength within Land is colored by our physical and spiritual journey to the Land. And our expression of thanksgiving is a ritualized transformation (a reenactment) of that journey from weakness to strength.

There’s a Kabbalistic idea that each of the first fruits correspond to the lower, seven sefirot – the attributes of Hashem that manifest in the created world.[6] If you break down what are called the first fruits, they are split into two categories – 1) fruit from trees and 2) grain.[7] In the Torah, and throughout the wisdom literature, humans are often likened to trees – with fruit as a metaphor for the highest realization of human attainment. Fruit is the crowning achievement of our humanity. This is why the Sages tell us that “a fruitless tree is a symptom of an imperfect world.”[8] Wheat and barley, on the other hand, the two grains amongst the seven species, represent physical sustenance and our foundation. In the Talmud (Sotah 14a) we read how wheat is the mainstay of the human diet. This has come to signify that “wheat represents the endeavor to nourish what is distinctly human in us, to feed the divine aspirations that are the essence of our humanity.”[9] Wheat also represents the sefirah of chesed, of kindness. The idea here is that kindness, and its implementation, is integral to our humanity. And fruit, therefore, is a consequence – not a privilege – of our behavior in the world. The Midrash teaches us that “first fruits represent the Jewish souls”[10] and one of the reasons these fruits are placed in a basket is to symbolize the soul coming down into a body. In a body, the human must live within the Land – in Hebrew, eretz, which is related to the word ratzon, meaning “will.”[11] The implication is that we must actualize our will to focus our kindness on the Land, and that this is an indispensable component of our humanity. As a form of sacrificial worship, this may mean foregoing some of the modern pleasures – the fruits – of life, in service of the Land. To lay fruit as a foundation before the grain is to place the cart before the horse, so to speak. What we need is to direct our will towards forms of action that demonstrate kindness towards the Land. This is how we express what it means to be human and build a way of life that provides for fruit-bearing trees. If not a perfected world, then at least we can cleave to the idea of an ecologically sustainable one that inspires and awakens a desire to live close to the ground.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Giving away some of our labor as a form of thanksgiving, the transformation of “strategic weakness,” and living in service of the Land


Miller, Chaim. "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition." (2011).

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] [2] [3] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1297 [4] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1297 [5] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1297 [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] Miller, "Chumash: The Gutnick Edition," p.1295 [11]

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