Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations may derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Bekurim (First fruit)…tithe declaration…conclusion of Moshe’s address…instructions upon crossing Jordan River (setting huge stones on which to write the Torah; building Altar out of whole stones)…blessings and curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Aival…blessings for observing the Torah…painful consequences of failing to observe the Mitzvos (Tochacha)…Moshe again urges guarding and observing the Covenant with God in order to succeed.
The Torah describes the ritual in the Temple that accompanies the bringing of the first fruit with which the Land Of Israel is blessed—wheat, barley, vines, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and date honey. The fruits are presented to the Kohen in a basket; the individual identifies himself historically by describing his early roots (Arami Ovaid Avi), the Egypt slavery experience, the Exodus, and finally being brought to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. This background leads up to his offering thanks …”and now ,behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the fruit of the land which YOU, HASHEM HAS GIVEN ME.”
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah asks why is it only here the Torah prescribes the exact words to be recited, when Biblical prayers are meant to be spontaneous, reflecting the unique emotions and words of the one praying.
Aaron Halevy (Sefer Hachinukh) stresses the educational importance of the words which arouse thoughts and stir the heart to realize God’s loving-kindness. Both speaking and praying aloud influence our behavior.
Rambam views the declaration as a way of creating humility in us by making us remember those times in our history that were filled with trouble and distress even (or especially) in times of bounty and complacency.
Martin Buber’s approach pays attention to the style and structure of the text, particularly the recurrence of certain words and phrases. The text repeats variations of “to give” seven times and variations of “coming/bring” five times. Gifts and giving; coming to the land; and demonstrating appreciation by bringing gifts are the keys to this Mitzvah.
The individual announces that he is bringing/giving to God a token of his appreciation for the land that He has given (and continues to give) both him and the Israelites. The presenter attempts to feel as if he had just come(entered) into the land for the first time. Every Bekurim offering provides the opportunity to acknowledge and declare anew his thanks; to capture the experience of entry into the land; and to identify with the nation of Israel, now and in the past. The Mitzvah is collective (Ta-voo-u—you all shall come, in the plural) but the duty is individual (Ta-vee--you shall bring, in the singular).The acquisition of, and the entry into, the land promised in the Covenant with Avraham is a gift from God that He is constantly renewing.
The significance of these prescribed words (Arami Oved Avi) is evident in their inclusion in the Passover Seder when we begin the recollection of our history starting with disgrace and ultimately concluding in praise. “In every generation, a person is obligated to perceive himself as if he, too, was there to experience the historic event …” is the essence of the Bikurim and Seder ceremonies.
On Arami Ovayd Avi
The meaning of this opening phrase is somewhat ambiguous.Arami usually means Aramean; Ovayd could mean lost or losing or cause to be lost; Avi means my father or ancestor.
The usual explanation for “ Laban the Aramean sought to do to my father ” in the Haggadah (when the Magid section begins in earnest)) is that “Laban the Aramean sought to harm my forefather Jacob” or “Laban the Armean tried to cause my father to be lost (i.e., destroyed)”. Avi is the direct object (and refers to Jacob) and ovayd is a transitive verb.
Ibn Ezra arguing that ovayd is intransitive, avi is the subject, and Arami refers to Jacob, translates the phrase to mean: “When my father was in Aram, he was ready to perish”…and ultimately God took his offspring out of Egypt and made us into a great nation.
Rashbam’s translation is “A wandering Aramean was my father ”. Avi, my father, refers to Avraham who was born in, lived in and wandered in the land of Aram.
Wolf Heidenheim, a 19th century philologist, notes that ovayd
is a specific form of the verb that means continuous past action which did not succeed.
Benno Jacob thinks that the word arami does not refer to a country but to an occupation as a shepherd. The phrase means “my father (Abraham?Jacob?) worked as a shepherd.”
On the Tochahcha
This Admonition of the evils that would befall us for failure to observe Torah b’simcha uvetuv layv--with joy and goodness of heart -- differs in a number of respects from the earlier Tochahca at Mt Sinai. This one contains 98 curses, double the size of the earlier one; this one contains much more frightening imagery; is spoken in the singular rather than in plural; and ends without the consolation with which the first one concludes.
This Tochahca is filled with frightening words and haunting images. For example:“ God will strike you with insanity, with blindness and bewilderment… …you will be nothing but wronged and downtrodden all the time…even the most sensitive and squeamish woman will slaughter and eat in secret (her own children)… you will go insane from the things your eyes will see…you will remain few in numbers…a trembling heart, dashed hopes and a suffering soul…you will not be certain of your life…in the morning you will say if it were only yesterday evening and in the evening you will say if it would only be morning…”
Ramban’s view is that the two Tochahchas refer to the destruction of the first and then the second Holy Temple. Rav Soloveitchik notes the first Tochacha relates to God’s past Covenant with us, while this one relates to the future. Like the earlier one, this Tochacha also ends with consolation... except the consolation appears in next week’s Parsha, Netzavim. The consolation is that at the conclusion of all the punishment and all the suffering, the Jewish people will repent and return to God.
Rav Yissocher Frand elaborates: “The Destruction of the First Bais HaMikdash and the Babylonian exile which followed it had a prophesized finite end to it. The prophets foretold that the people would be in exile for 70 years and following this 70 year period, the Jews were given permission to return to the Land of Israel (where they eventually rebuilt the Bais HaMikdash). Therefore, it makes sense that the Tochacha which foretells the Babylonian Exile features the consolation in close proximity to the end of the chastisement.
We do not know of a specified date for the redemption from the Destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash. We have now been in this exile for close to 2000 years! However, there will be an end to this exile. When will that occur? We do not know, but it will come. This is precisely why the consolation does not immediately follow the Tochacha here. We need to wait. We need to wait until we return to our God. Eventually, we will get out of it because in the end Israel will repent and immediately thereafter they will be redeemed …but we do not know when that is going to happen.”
Here as the Jewish people are about to enter the holy land as ish echad blayv echad, a strong sense of national unity and identity, they are spoken to as one organic whole, in the singular. Some forty years earlier at Mt Sinai the Jews were a group of individuals whose nation had not yet been formed.
The Lubavitch Rebbi notes that the earlier Tochahcha is read before Shavuoth, and provides a spiritual framework for accepting the Torah anew. Today’s reading of the Admonition, comes in Elul and is designed to help us achieve meaningful repentance.