Conquest and settlement of the land
Mikra Bekurim (first fruits offering) and
Viddui Ma’aser (declaration at triennial distribution of tithes)…
Offer thanks to God for the gift of the Land of Israel
Instructions upon crossing Jordan River reminiscent of the Mt. Sinai experience…
o Setting huge stones on which to write the Torah(or Book of Devarim)
o Building Altar out of whole stones
o Bringing offerings(korbanot)
o Blessings (at Mt. Gerizim) and curses (at Mt. Aival) that
mirror the Ten Commandments, after which the Israelites answered Amen
Blessings for observing the Mitzvahs
Curses of disobedience (Tokhecha)
Moshe’s final address again urges guarding and observing this Second Covenant with God in order to succeed; the earlier Covenant at Sinai had been abrogated by the sin of the Golden Calf
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, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olive oil and date honey. The fruits are presented to the priest in a basket. The individual identifies himself 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 land that HASHEM HAS GIVEN ME.”
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson in his Meditations on the Torah asks why is it that the Torah prescribes the exact words to be recited, when Biblical prayers are meant to be spontaneous, reflecting the individual 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 forcing us to remember those times in our history that were filled with abundance. Amassing wealth may cause haughtiness and insolence. To put things in perspective we are commanded to return the first of our bounty to its source, God:
First grains (terumah)
First fruit (bekurim)
First dough (challah)
First shearing (reshit hagaz)
First male child
Isaac Arama stresses the ritual’s role as another reminder that it is God who is the source of our prosperity and it is our responsibility to express our gratitude to Him for everything He has given us.
Abrabanel thinks that the purpose of bringing the first fruits is to curb farmers’ natural instinct to immediately benefit from this most treasured possession. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that the keys to sin avoidance are sustine et abstine (“bear up under hardship and contain yourself from indulgence”).The Torah laws are designed to help us make a habit of self-control. Aaron Barth, an Israeli commentator, adds that the purpose is to help us gain mastery over our impulses and to convert our impulse into our will.
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 are the keys to this ceremony.
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) to both him and the nation. The presenter does not say “my fathers came…” but “…I have come…” as if he himself is entering the land for the first time .He is trying to capture the powerful emotions that must have been felt by the first Israelites who came to the Promised Land.
Every Bekurim offering provides the opportunity to acknowledge and declare anew our 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 “you all shall come” (in the plural) but the duty is individual, “you shall bring” (in the singular). The acquisition of 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 Ovaid 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 Ovaid Avi
The meaning of this opening phrase is somewhat ambiguous .Arami usually means Aramean; ovaid could mean lost or losing or cause to be lost; avi means my father or ancestor.
The usual translation for the Hebrew “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 Aramean tried to cause my father to be lost (i.e., destroyed)”. Avi is the direct object (and refers to Jacob) and ovaid is a transitive verb.
• Ibn Ezra, arguing that ovaid 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 nineteenth century philologist, notes that ovaid is a specific form of the verb that means continuous past action which did not succeed. Our enemies intended (and continue to try) to destroy us, but have failed thanks to you, God.
• Benno Jacob thinks that the Hebrew 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.”
Do these two final Mitzvahs of Mikra Bekurim and Viddui Ma’aser belong here?
Logically, these Mitzvahs belong in Parshat Re’eh where the Torah discusses the place that God has chosen to bring offerings (Holy Temple) and also details the laws of the three year cycle of tithes.
Moshe has just concluded his major speech whose primary purpose was to teach the Israelites the laws needed to be observed upon their entry into the Promised Land. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag reasons that “apparently, the Torah felt that after Moshe’s presenting the people’s required behavior it was important to direct them to express their gratitude for the Land He gave us”. The Torah dictated the precise language to use to express our thanks for the fertile Land! Mikra Bekurim is our annual sampling of first fruits brought as a token of our appreciation for the gift He has given us. The text of Viddui Ma’aser asserts that the gift is the fulfillment of the promise He made to our forefathers.
The word Viddui, which usually means confession of a wrongdoing, cannot be translated that way here where the farmer has asserted quite the contrary-- that he has done everything God has commanded regarding tithes. A translation offered by commentaries when the word appears in Divrei Hayamim is “expressing gratitude.”
This need to express gratitude -- Moshe’s final words to his people before he dies--is the take-away message for us all to consider.
Blessings and Curses at Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Aival
Rabbi Gunther Plaut’s insight is that the twelve curses selected were for behavior generally done in secret for which there could be no punishment by the courts. Four of the twelve deal with sexual matters.
Rav S.R. Hirsch’s understanding is that the blessings will be denied to those who outwardly appear to be pious and caring but who privately feel superior; who are lacking in true faith; who wallow in sexual licentiousness; and who remain indifferent to, and intolerant of, those less fortunate.
Rabbi Leibtag’s analysis of the curses demonstrates how they match the Ten Commandments…
“Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image” clearly parallels the first two Commandments
“Cursed be he who insults [or makes light of] his father or mother” reflects the commandment to honor one’s parents
“Cursed be he who moves his fellow countryman’s landmark” echo’s the commandment not to steal
“Cursed be he who misdirects a blind person on his way” broadly includes not giving bad advice to an other--like persuading him to sell a property in order to acquire it himself-- and corresponds to the prohibition to not covet (excessive desire for another’s property or spouse)
“Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan and the widow” may correspond to at least one aspect of the observance of Shabbos (fourth commandment) that demands fair treatment of people and humans alike in commemoration of our Exodus from Egypt
“Cursed be he who lies with his father’s wife…with any animal… with his sister… with his mother-in- law” is the commandment to not commit (the prohibited sexual act of) adultery
“Cursed be he who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret” parallels “Thou shalt not murder” [Note: This also includes killing someone’s reputation.]
“Cursed be he who accepts a bribe” is about dishonesty in the courtroom [addressed to either the witness or the judge or to both], behavior encapsulated in the commandment to not testify falsely
“Cursed is he who will not uphold the terms of this Torah” which is about the oath to keep the Torah (according to Rashi) parallels the third Commandment to not speak God’s name in vain.
On the Tokhecha (chastisement, rebuke)
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 Tokhecha at Mt Sinai. This one…
• Contains 98 curses, double the size of the earlier one
• Uses much more frightening imagery
• Is spoken in the singular rather than in plural
• Ends without the national consolation of the earlier one
This Tokhecha is filled with frightening words, haunting images and an awesome array of curses far exceeding and overwhelming the preceding blessings:
• “God will strike you with Egyptian inflammation…
• With hemorrhoids, boil scars and itch from which you will never recover…
• With insanity, with blindness and with bewilderment
• You will be nothing but wronged and downtrodden all the time
• You will be constantly abused and robbed with none to give help
• 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
• God will inflict extraordinary plagues on you and your offspring, strange and lasting plagues, malignant and chronic diseases
• You will remain few in numbers with…
• A trembling heart, dashed hopes and a suffering soul
• The life you face will be precarious, you shall be in terror night and day with no assurance of survival and
• You will not be certain of your life
• In the morning you will say if it was only evening and in the evening you will say if it would only be morning…”
Ramban’s view is that the two Tokhechas refer to the destruction of the first and then the second Holy Temple.
Rav J. B. Soloveitchik’ s opinion is that the first Tokhecha 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.”
The Ohr HaChaim (1696-1743) suggests that the earlier Tokhecha is in the plural because it was meant for a time when the entire nation would sin. But in this week’s Parsha the Tokhecha is expressed in the singular because it is addressed to individuals who act inappropriately even if the nation as a whole is not sinning.
As the Jewish people are about to enter the holy land as ish echad blayv echad, with 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 Israelites were spoken to in the plural because they were a rag-tag group of many individuals and not yet a nation.
The Lubavitch Rebbe notes that the earlier Tokhecha is read before Shavuoth, and provides a spiritual framework for accepting the Torah anew. Today’s reading is in Elul and is designed to help us achieve meaningful repentance.
Is Exile a Blessing in disguise?
The Tokhecha states that when God scatters the Jews among all people of the world …”there you shall serve other gods, with which you are not familiar even wood and stone”, a statement that does not seem to fit because acceptance of idolatry does not seem to be a punishment for the very behavior that precipitated our Exile.
Nechama Leibowitz cites a number of approaches to understanding this puzzling text:
Abrabanel thinks the punishment is that we will be forced to worship idols against our will, all the while knowing the worship is foolish and false.
Isaac Arama thinks that the real tragedy is that even if we do accept their religion, the nations of the world will never accept us as part of their societies and will continue to maintain exclusionary barriers.
But this inability to assimilate may prove to be a positive for us in that it will leave us with no choice in Exile but to hold on to our faith and to work to return to our Homeland. A Midrash confirms this idea with its comments on the verse in the Tokhecha “…and among these nations you will have no repose and there will be no rest for the sole of your foot”. Says the Midrash, “if we had found rest [and acceptance] we would not have returned”.
The interpretations of Abrabanel and Isaac Arama, both of whom lived during the time of the Spanish expulsion, were no doubt influenced by the religious persecutions they observed and experienced. In our lifetime the Zionist/Aliyah/NefeshB’Nefesh movements and organizations are both the catalysts and facilitators for our people’s return from Exile to our Homeland.
Moshe’s Concluding Remarks
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag notes that the Second Covenant described here incorporates ceremonies that are almost identical to those some forty years earlier when the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai:
• Building an altar
• Offering korbanot
• Erecting twelve large stones
• Reading the tokhecha
Because the Israelites of this generation on the threshold of the Promised Land were not present at the original ceremony, it was necessary to repeat so that the Israelites could “re-live” and then re-affirm their commitment to the Covenant.