Getting close: As new year approaches, things to keep in mind

Rabbi Douglas Zelden

By Rabbi Doug Zelden, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8)

We are approaching the High Holydays and the new year of 5779 in just a little over a week. Though we’ve been blowing the Shofar on weekday mornings for about three weeks, this weekend and this Saturday night’s Slichot service really impresses upon us the reality of the new year almost being here. Preceding the ushering in of Slichot, is this Shabbat when we read the Torah portion of Ki Tavo. This Parsha includes the Mitzvah of bringing the first fruits (of the seven special species of the land of Israel) to the Temple as an offering, as well as the declaration of tithes, and the Almighty designating the Jewish people as his “Am Segulah” treasured people.

Ki Tavo also tells us of the command to set up large stones at the Jordan River and then on Mount Ebal, which had the Torah written upon them, according to tradition, in 70 languages. This is then followed by the command to have a public ratification of the acceptance of the Laws from Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. This designated the blessings set forth for us if we follow the laws and the curses that would come for not following it, all leading to Moses’ final discourse to the people before his death.

Near the beginning of the portion we see that famous mitzvah of Bikurim, as mentioned earlier, and the following statement, which reads: “And you shall answer and say before HaShem your Gd, ‘An Aramite [attempted to] destroy my father, and he [my father] descended to Egypt, and lived there, few in number, and he became a great, mighty, and large nation. And the Egyptians did evil to us and afflicted us, and placed hard labor upon us. And we cried out to Hashem, Gd of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voices… And Hashem took us out from Egypt… And brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.'” [Deuteronomy 26:59]

This passage is one which we read and interpret every year as part of the Passover Haggadah and there, it makes a great deal of sense to do so. In full, this passage describes both our exile to Egypt and our redemption at Gd’s hand, through His miracles. What more appropriate reading could there be for the Haggadah of Pesach, the holiday of redemption? But in the Torah, this appears as part of the process by which we offered Bikurim, the first fruits, in the Beit Hamikdash – The Holy Temple.

One came, and recited this passage in the process of giving the offering. The Torah considers it of such great importance that the Rambam (Maimonides) and other commentators list the recitation as a separate Mitzvah, which one fulfills while offering Bikurim. An offering without the declaration is not merely an “imperfectly performed” Mitzvah, which is acceptable once done  rather, one has entirely failed to perform this separate commandment regarding the statement!

While it is surely important to recall all of Hashem’s kindnesses at all times, what is the special relevance of our history to the offering of the first fruits, the Bikurim?

When do we offer Bikurim? When things are at their best. As Rashi, the great commentator, points out, this Mitzvah only applied once the land had been conquered. Then, the Mitzvah came at that point in the year when a farmer had put in his efforts, and was seeing his efforts “bear fruit” (literally and figuratively). This was the time when a person could sit back on his laurels, and say, “look what I’ve accomplished!”

When we are faced with a bad situation, it is easy to remember Hashem. “There are no atheists in the trenches.” But when everything is good, we sit back, enjoy ourselves, and recognize no one but ourselves as responsible for our accomplishments.

Under the influence of many eastern religions, some have come to believe that to be truly religious, one must live an ascetic life of poverty.  Our Torah teaches a path of moderation yes, do business, but always recognize that you are not “the master of your fate.” We must recognize this truth, and how easily it can “slip our minds.” Only once we declare our recognition of “He who has provided for us,” can we accept all the good things in life without losing sight of our spiritual goals. Only then, as the Torah states:  “You shall rejoice in all the good which Hashem your Gd has given to you and your house…” [Deuteronomy 26:11]

Rabbi Doug Zelden is rabbi of Congregation Or Menorah (Orthodox), chaplain for Home Bound Hospice, and hosts of the weekly TV show “Taped With Rabbi Doug” (www.tvrabbi.com).

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