The recitation mentioned in this week’s parshah, Ki Tavo, that accompanies the bringing of the first fruits (Bikkurim) in the times of the Temple from the seven specified species of the Land of Israel, (Devarim 8:8), is a brief synopsis of the travels of the Jews to Egypt, their sufferings, liberation and then journey into the land of Israel. It is an act of appreciation for the bounty provided by Hashem. Without the exodus and entry into the land, there would be no Jewish nation in the land of Israel. Without the blessings from Hashem there would be no produce. The Sefer HaChinuch describes the message of the recitation. “It is suitable for him to awaken his heart with the words of his mouth and contemplate that everything arrived to him from the Master of the Universe, and he recount His kindness, may He be blessed, upon us and upon the people of Israel.”
The sentence following the recitation states, “And you shall rejoice in all the good granted to you by Hashem your G-d” (Devarim, 26:11).
Whether it is a productive or a lean year, appreciation is given for whatever is received from Hashem.
This message has been implanted in the minds and hearts of Jewry for the millennium.
Over one hundred years ago, two Jewish worlds in Europe were separated by far more than geographical borders. The Jews of the East, largely within the Russian Czarist Empire, lived under the burden on the Russian Czars, where they were persecuted, downtrodden and impoverished, while the Jews of Germany were more emancipated and worldly.
With the outbreak of World War One and the German invasion of Russian occupied Poland and Lithuania, Jewish troops of the German army suddenly encountered the Jews of the East, otherwise known as the Ostjuden.
Many German Jewish soldiers were shocked at the contrasts. They were unimpressed by their lifestyle, their style of dress, their adherence to Jewish traditions, which they viewed as relics of the past. Others were oblivious to their presence and paid no heed.
But there were also those who saw their depth their spirituality and were inspired by them.
Zionist activist and author Arnold Zweig noticed that faith trumps fear and poverty among Eastern European Jews. He observed how the Jews of the East accepted their lot despite all privations. He noted, “Their learning, observance and devotion to G-D”.
Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was inspired by their piety. In a letter, he described the praying in a Chasidic synagogue in Warsaw, “These people don’t need an organ with their surging enthusiasm…. I have never heard such praying.”
Rabbi Joseph Carlebach, an Orthodox Rabbi and one of the German Jewish clergy serving in the military was impressed and impacted by his encounters. He noticed an “inner spirituality” of the Eastern Jew.
One particular quality among the Eastern Jews often noticed was their sense of joy in the face of so much suffering during the horrors of the war. How could they be so content in spirit despite all their hardships?
Zionist activist, lawyer and writer, Sammy Gronemann observed a Simchat Torah celebration in Krakow Poland, and asked, “Why are these people dancing? Why are they so happy? What is this Torah that they celebrate? Can you imagine people from Western nations displaying such love?”
One German soldier wrote of his observations to his parents, “I came from the front from Kalvaria. I had seen the destroyed cities of East Prussia and wandered through land that was as devoid of people and animals as Sodom and Gomorrah used to be. Only skeletons of horses were lying left and right on the street. Later I learned about the Jewish suffering in Russia, where Russians arrested Jews for months, and incited pogroms. I heard canons every day and saw the long trains of the wounded. The picture of suffering was in my soul when I entered the synagogue for services. Yet, the people were festive, peaceful as if there was no war and praised G-d who makes us content every day.”
The experience from watching fellow Jews in the East was transformational for those who appreciated the encounters with their long lost brethren and were inspired by their outlook on life amid the horrors of the war.
As recited daily in the morning prayers, Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu “Content we are, how good is our portion.”
In today’s world, Israel faces dangers. The turmoil and instability that abounds can be unsettling. Yet, as Jews, we can rejoice as our ancestors throughout history who saw optimism amid the darkness. We can celebrate as our forebears who brought the first fruits and pronounced the recitation. We can thank our Creator who has carried us as Jews through the millennia, and thank Hashem for His continued blessings for the Land of Israel, and call for His protection and His salvation.