PARASHAT KI TAVO: Repairing relationships

This commandment expresses the farmer’s Jewish compassion that gives him the responsibility for others’ fate.

‘LET THESE be bikkurim.’ (photo credit: DAVID BLAIKIE/FLICKR)
‘LET THESE be bikkurim.’
(photo credit: DAVID BLAIKIE/FLICKR)
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read the conclusion of Moses’s long speech – the speech of the commandments. From here until the end of the Torah we will read admonitions, warnings, blessings, promises and the moving descriptions of Moses’s parting from the nation, but we will not find many additional commandments, other than the building of the altar and the covenant on Mount Ebal, and a few commandments relating to writing a Torah scroll and its future use: how to treat it and when to read it.
Our Torah portion begins with two commandments, and they conclude the long speech of the commandments: the commandment of offering the first fruits, and the poor man’s tithe. These two commandments relate to the agricultural harvest in the Land of Israel and try to educate people, providing a Jewish-value perspective on the economic sphere of life. These two commandments – one that is fulfilled at the beginning of the agricultural harvest and the other after the harvest has been collected – directly relate to the two relationships man has in life: his relationship with God, and his relationship with others.
We find a vivid description of the commandment to bring first fruit in the Mishna (Bikurim 3):
“How does one set aside bikurim? A man goes down into his field, he sees a fig that ripened, or a cluster of grapes that ripened, or a pomegranate that ripened, he ties a reed rope around it, and says: ‘Let these be bikurim.’
“How were the bikurim taken up [to Jerusalem]? All [the inhabitants of] the cities of the ma’amad would assemble in the city.... Early in the morning the officer would say: ‘Let us arise and go up to Zion, into the House of the Lord our God’... The flute would play before them until they would draw close to Jerusalem.... All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them, saying, ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’ Even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When he got to the Temple Court, the Levites would sing the song.”
We notice that the commandment begins with the first fruits that ripen on the tree. At this moment of satisfaction, the person is called upon to mark the first fruit and recognize that the results of his deeds and work do not make him master of the harvest. It is the first fruit that is taken to the Temple and given to the kohanim (priests).
The end of this commandment teaches us that this call is not meant to suppress the naturally human sense of satisfaction. On the contrary, when a person acknowledges that his assets and livelihood are a gift from God, the result is satisfaction and joy. This is how the description of the commandment concludes:
“Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household – you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you” (Deuteronomy 26:11).
From here, we move on to the next commandment, poor man’s tithe, focused on man’s relationship with others, and we can see this as a direct result of the message we are taught by the commandment of first fruit.
Every year, the farmers of the Land of Israel are commanded to give a certain percentage of their harvest to the kohanim and the Levites. In addition, during most years, the farmer sets aside a second tithe – a certain percentage of the harvest is eaten by the farmer and his family in Jerusalem. But there are years (the third and sixth years in the seven-year cycle of shmita, the sabbatical year) during which the farmer does not set aside the second tithe but rather the poor man’s tithe given to “the stranger, the orphan and the widow.”
Through this commandment the farmer expresses the concept of Jewish compassion, which makes man responsible for the fate of others. The fact that one person has a harvest but another does not have the ability to support himself calls upon him to repair this social reality. The person is pleased with the fruit of his labor, with the abundance that removes worry for the upcoming year, and at the same time he is required to make sure his poor neighbor experiences joy.
The greatest of Jewish rabbinical authorities, Maimonides, said the following in a different context:
“While eating and drinking, one must feed the stranger, the orphan, the widow and other poor unfortunates. Anyone, however, who locks the doors of his courtyard and eats and drinks along with his wife and children, without giving anything to eat and drink to the poor and the desperate, does not observe a religious celebration but indulges in the celebration of his stomach” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Yom Tov, chapter 6).
It is permissible to be happy and one must be happy, but we must not forget those who have no joy in their hearts. For joy not to be a disgrace, we must look around us, take note of the needy and provide for them.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.