Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to present a new column of the parsha shiurim of Harav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. To manage the amount of divrei Torah for Rabbi Grunfeld to go through, we will be publishing the column biweekly. Missing parshiyos will be made up next year, G-d willing.
Parshas Ki Tavo begins with the word v’haya, which contains the letters of G-d’s name (Y-K-V-K). It is also an expression of joy. Bikurim are brought only after Eretz Yisrael has been conquered and the children of Israel are permanently settled in their allotted portions of land. Only then is the final phase of redemption of “I will bring you into the land…and I will give it to you as a morasha…” (Shemos 6:18) realized.
The Children of Israel’s right to Eretz Yisrael is not a yerusha (an inheritance). It is a morasha: it is dependent on their performing the mitzvot of the Torah and passing this legacy on to their children after them.
For forty years, plus the time it took to conquer the land, G-d had to stall on his promise to Avraham – “and the fourth generation will return here” (Bereishis 15:16). But now that it has finally come to pass, G-d rejoices.
The continual existence of the people of Israel in the Promised Land is not guaranteed. But its chances of survival are maximized for as long as the Beis HaMikdash exists. This is because of the ten miracles that could continuously be witnessed by the people on their tri-annual visits to the holy Temple, which strengthened their commitment to the Torah. The numerical value of tavo is 409, or the beginning of the 410th year – the year in which the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed, after which the people of Israel no longer had a lock on the land.
“V’anisa v’amarta” (Devarim 26:5). The bringing of the Bikurim is a reciprocal, verbal, and an active response to G-d’s kindness in finally bringing us to this fruitful land. By bringing the Bikurim, we acknowledge that we are just sharecroppers in his land (as it says, “HaShamayim, shamayim L’Hashem,” Tehillim 115:16). Only after making this admission and giving to Him what belongs to Him anyway, do we have a right to enjoy the land (“v’ha’aretz nasan livnei adam,” the end of that pasuk.)
The gift of Bikurim has to be wrapped in a way that is fit for a King, in the spirit of “offer it to your governor” (Malachi 1:8). It must be offered in a beautiful basket. The decoration of the gift in this way is referred to the in the Mishnah as “itur Bikkurim,” beautifying the Bikurim. The Biblical source of the importance of offering a gift in beautiful packaging can be traced to the story of the brothers of Joseph who, when journeying to Egypt in search of food, were asked by their father to bring him gifts of the best fruits of the land. When they arrived, they spent all morning preparing the gifts in beautiful wrappings: “They laid out their gifts to await Yosef’s arrival at noon” (Bereishis 43:25).
The kohen takes the basket of Bikurim and lays it (“v’hinicho”) before G-d. Chazal tell us the word lays v’hinicho means to wave. The kohen and the owner wave these symbols of prosperity in the direction of the four corners of the earth, as with the lulav, to acknowledge that He who controls beneficial and destructive winds, also controls our fate. Once we demonstrate this recognition through waving, G-d is ready to keep the harmful forces that destroy our crops at bay and bless us with prosperity.
In our response of v’anisa v’amarta, we have to thank G-d for the kindness He has shown us from the time of Avraham. According to Rashi and the Ba’al HaHaggadah, “Arami oved avi” refers to Lavan who tried to eradicate all of Ya’akov’s values – “Lavan bikeish la’akor es ha’kol,” in the words of the Haggadah. This interpretation raises the following two difficulties. First, the Torah calls him Lavan and not Lavan Ha’arami. Second, whereas the word bikeish is stated in the past tense, the word oved is stated in the present tense.
Accordingly, one can interpret the words Arami oved avi as referring not only to Lavan, but also to Avraham, who, before becoming the leader of all nations (“av hamon goyim”), was a leader in Aram – Av Aram.
We know that Avraham tried to isolate himself from the evil influence of the idolatry of Aram. It was for this reason that he was named Avraham Ha’ivri, because ideologically he was me’aveir ha’nahar – on the opposite bank of the mainstream of thinking. He believed in monotheism, whereas the people of Aram believed in idol worship.
The Torah gives Avraham credit for mingling with the people of Aram in order to convert them to monotheism, and that remains a commendable activity to this day. Nevertheless, the reality is that associating with people of a lower standard of G-dliness has some negative impact on the person who is trying to convert them. It was the negative influence of Aram that made Avraham commit the sin which was the direct cause of the punishment of his children being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. This can only be said because Chazal said it.
The nature of Avraham’s sin is the subject of a three-way debate in Chazal. Some are of the view that the sin was that Avraham conscripted his students into battle with the 4 kings (Bereishis 14:14), whereas others maintain that the sin was that he returned captives to King of Sodom (14:16). There are yet others who say that the sin was that he asked G-d for proof that he would inherit Eretz Yisrael (15:8). Whatever the sin might have been, it was the influence of Aram that was undoubtedly the root cause then and remains so now whenever a Jew sins today. That is why the word oved in Arami oved avi is in the present tense.
In proclaiming his thanks to G-d, the person bringing the Bikurim says “vayered Mitrayma, va’yagar sham bimsei me’at” (Devarim 26:5). The Ba’al HaHaggadah interprets the word va’yagar as reflecting that Ya’akov and his 70 relatives who came to Egypt never really settled there, but always considered themselves to be strangers, geirim, in Egypt. Similarly, Shemos begins, “V’eleh shemos Bnei Yisrael ha’ba’im Mitzraima…” the word ha’ba’im is in the present tense, because those who came to Egypt never unpacked their belongings. They saw themselves as only temporary residents there. They always remembered where they came from and forever yearned to return to Eretz Yisrael, as expressed in the pasuk: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Tehillim 137:5). They remained few in number and lived apart from the Egyptians in the land of Goshen. The Egyptians had no problem with that.
It was only when they “multiplied, became powerful” and moved into the major cities of Egypt (end of Devarim 26:5) that “The Egyptians dealt harshly with them (beginning of the next pasuk). The words “va’timaleh ha’artez osam” (Shemos 1:7), generally understood to mean that the Israelites filled the land, can also be understood to mean that the land filled them, to the point of infatuation. True, they kept their Hebrew names, wore different clothes, spoke Hebrew and did not intermarry. However, in all other respects, they conducted themselves like Egyptians. History repeats itself. Whenever the Jews assimilate and forget their identity, their host countries rise up against them. As the Tochacha in this week’s parsha says, “Even among the nations you will find no peace,” which means one should never get too comfortable in the Diaspora, because ultimately, this will lead to expulsion.
The one who brings the Bikurim does so in gratitude to G-d for having delivered us out of the land of Egypt, with a mighty hand. Did G-d really have to use all His might to take us out of Egypt? Isn’t He omnipotent? Could He not have destroyed Egypt with a flick of His finger? As G-d said to Pharaoh, “…and you and your people…would have been removed from the earth” (Shemos 9:15). All I have to do is send in the wild beasts and all of you will perish. This question is actually the eternal question. Why did G-d harden Pharaoh’s heart when he was prepared to relent? The answer is in the very next verse that follows, “lma’an sapeir shemi b’chol ha’aretz.” As Rashi explains: The purpose of the ten plagues was to warn the people of Israel by example of the dire consequences of forsaking G-d. They were shown on the big screen what could be if they did.
These highlights from the Parsha Shiur of Haga’on Harav Dovid Fienstein, zt”l, are brought to you by Raphael Grunfeld, a partner in the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP ,who received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Harav, Haga’on Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. and who attended his weekly parshah shiur for twenty years.