Parashat Ki Tavo: National memory

When we look at the Torah in general, we see that it consistently places history as the basis for every moral and human obligation.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Parashat Ki Tavo is mainly dedicated to strengthening the covenant that the Creator made with the people of Israel. The Torah emphasizes again and again that when the people keep the commandments, they will merit blessing, and when they stray from the ways of God, they will be exiled from their land and greatly suffer.
A commandment appears at the beginning of the parasha that at first glance seems to be unrelated to its main content. This commandment is the mitzva of bikurim, First Fruits.
What is this mitzva? When a person grows the fruits of the Land of Israel, termed shiv’at haminim, the seven species, he must bring the First Fruits up to the Temple. The owner of the First Fruits and the priest together lift them up, to symbolize that they are sacred, and then place them before the altar.
After this, there is a commandment that the person bringing the bikurim must recite the verses that mention the history of the people of Israel and God’s salvation, up to the entrance to the “land of milk and honey.” The Torah states this as follows: "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather [at the dawn of the Israel’s history, Jacob worked in the land of Aram for his father-in-law, Laban, who wished to destroy Jacob and his sons], and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor on us. So we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe and with signs and wonders” (Deuteronomy 26:5-8).
In conclusion, the Torah states: “Then, you shall lay it before the Lord, your God, and prostrate yourself before the Lord, your God. Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household....” (ibid. 26:10-11).
Detailing the history of the people of Israel is part of the great gratitude to God for all His goodness, which reaches its peak when growing the select First Fruits in the orchards. The nation that was persecuted and oppressed was rescued by God and is now residing calmly on its land growing first-rate fruit.
Is there a connection between the mitzva of reciting these verses and the covenant between Israel and God? Why was this commandment written specifically here? By connecting these two issues, the Torah emphasizes the tremendous importance of Israel’s national memory when establishing its residence in the land and in fulfilling the Torah and keeping to God’s path. Before mentioning the covenant that God made with the Children of Israel and the nation’s obligation to walk the straight and proper path, the basis must be mentioned first: where we came from, where we were raised, and how God made us into His nation.
For this reason, the Torah makes sure we remind ourselves what our situation was before the Exodus from Egypt. We must sense the goodness that we benefited from when the covenant was made with us, the Torah was given to us, and we were brought to the land of milk and honey. On the strong basis of this powerful national memory, we build our obligation to walk the straight and proper path.
When we look at the Torah in general, we see that it consistently places history as the basis for every moral and human obligation. A huge part of the first book of the Bible, Genesis, is dedicated to the creation of the world. The entire Torah deals with the history of the Jewish nation. Many mitzvot are in memory of the act of creation or in memory of the Exodus from Egypt.
We must constantly remind ourselves where we come from and what the people of Israel’s historical direction is. Only in this way can we strengthen our ability to choose the right path, the one that God directs us to through His Torah and His mitzvot.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.