Posted by: Subway Conductor | September 4, 2020

A Derasha on Parshat Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah portion begins by describing the ritual of the “first fruits.” The Torah commands that when the Jewish People come into the Land of Israel, they must bring the first fruits of the soil to Jerusalem. They are to put the produce into a basket and hand it to the kohen (priest), declaring, “I acknowledge that I have come into the land which the Lord promised to give to our fathers.” Then the Torah goes on to describe how the kohen would set down the basket and the person bringing it would recite a narrative, telling the essential story of the Jewish People. “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt few in number 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 G-d 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 us.” 

Telling this story is essential to Judaism. I have spoken on many occasions about the centrality of the Exodus from Egypt for Judaism. More than any other event in Jewish History, the Exodus is a part of almost every ritual we perform. Here is another example. On the holiday of Shavuot, when the first fruits were brought to Jerusalem, telling the story of the Exodus was the central feature of the ritual. Eventually, with the destruction of the Temple, it was no longer possible to bring the first fruits. The ritual of putting the first fruits into a basket and handing them to the kohen ceased. So, what happened to the story?

The story was moved to the Passover Haggadah. If you look in your Haggadah, you will see that the main part of the story section consists of the verses that we quoted here from this week’s Torah portion. However, there are a couple of differences in the Haggadah. First, the narration ends at the words “signs and portents”. Second, the Haggadah adds a commentary to the verses. What we find in the Haggadah resembles what we call Midrash. One type of Midrash takes biblical verses and breaks them down into phrases and individual words and comments on each. This is precisely what we have in the Haggadah. Let us consider a small sample:

“He went down to Egypt” – compelled by G-d’s decree.

“And sojourned there” – this teaches that Jacob our father did not go down to settle in Egypt, but only to sojourn there, as it is written, “And they said to Pharaoh, we have come to sojourn in the land for there is no pasture for the flock for the famine is very great in the Land of Canaan. Now, let your servants dwell in the Land of Goshen.”

“few in number” – And it is written, “Your fathers came down to Egypt with seventy persons and now the Lord, your G-d, has made you as the stars of heaven for a multitude.”

The Haggadah continues in this way through the rest of the story.

So, we see that the core of the Passover Haggadah is a midrashic version of the narrative that was recited originally on Shavuot as part of the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem. The ritual of the first fruits ceased after the destruction of the Temple. We could no longer bring the first fruits and hand the basket to the kohen, but the telling of the story that was part of the ritual continued. It is the telling of the story which is the essence.

This reminds me of a Hasidic tale that I heard many years ago.

During the lifetime of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, the Jewish community faced a calamity which threatened their existence. The Baal Shem Tov went to a certain place in the forest. There he lit a special fire and said a special prayer. A miracle occurred and the calamity was averted. In the next generation, when the Jewish community was in need of a miracle, the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, went to the place in the forest where his master had gone. He, however, did not know how to light the special fire. He did say the special prayer and it sufficed and the community was spared. In the next generation, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov was called upon to save the community.  He appealed to G-d saying, “I do not know how to make the special fire or say the special  prayer, but I have come to the place in the forest where the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezrich had gone. So, it must suffice.” In the next generation, when trouble again arose for the community, Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, sat in his house in his chair. He said to G-d, “I do not know how to make the special fire or say the special prayer. I do not even know where the place in the forest is where my predecessors went, but I do know the story and that must suffice” and it did.

Have a good Shabbos.

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