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I’ve been to Israel so many times, it would be impossible to count at this point, and every time I think about it, my memory always starts with arriving at Ben Gurion Airport and immediately going to my Savta’s house in Ramat Gan. As a kid, I would run to the makolet (market) and grab an artik (ice pop) and some assorted treats and would simply say, Savta Yedida and walk out. I didn’t know there was a tab that she had to pay afterwards; I guess at the time, I had just thought the owner must have viewed my Savta how I view her, and so he would give her anything, on the house.
My family is originally from Yemen, where my ancestors lived for close to 2,000 years. Over 100 years ago, my grandmother’s side of the family decided to move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and then to Israel (southern Syria/Mandate Palestine at the time) in 1933. Once I graduated high school, I went to Yeshiva in Israel for a year in Bayit VeGan, a nice neighborhood in Jerusalem. Every memory I have of Israel feels like a dream, there is just something surreal, spectacular, and ineffable about the land. After that year immersed in ancient Jewish texts, I went to University of Maryland for a couple years and felt drawn to go back to Jerusalem to study more, so I went back to Yeshiva, this time right outside of the Old City. Walking into the Old City on Friday night, you’d feel Shabbat like you never had before, realizing you are walking through history, through what’s left of the two Batei Hamikdash (Holy Temples), seeing the stones that surround the Promised Land of an eternal people.
Some Shabbatot I would take my friends from yeshiva to my Savta’s in Ramat Gan (they all called her G-ma;). I remember her waking up at 5 am every day, covering her head and saying the morning tefillah. She would cook Yemenite food and Moroccan salads, and my friends and I would sing Shabbat songs in Hebrew, as she sat on the couch crying from happiness. It’s incredible to realize all the time that she and her family were exiled in Yemen and Ethiopia and that they were able to come back to Israel and that she could see her grandson living in Yerushalayim, singing the songs that have been sung throughout history every Shabbat since the Jews left Egypt and entered Israel. She had made it, we had made it — the yearning for home and the unification of a people with its ancestral homeland had been realized in her lifetime.
This week’s Parashah Ki Tavo (“When You Come”) mentions our receiving the land of Israel several times, tying the right to the land to our keeping of the commandments. In a time when monotheism and morality were revelations, Jews revealed truth in a world where it’s hidden. In Ki Tisa we touched on Mark Twain’s observation of Jews as the eternal people and his question of what makes them so. He wrote, “If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race. It suggests a nebulous puff of stardust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.
His contributions to the world’s list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.
The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
This parashah answers the question of the immortality of the people of Israel with the answer– morality and the culture of ethics that the mitzvot establish.
The beginning and ending of this parashah teaches the ritual of bringing the bikkurim (first fruits) to the Beit Hamikdash as a “thanksgiving to Hashem,” which we will dive deep into via sichot (talks) of The Lubavitcher Rebbe. The parashah concludes with a detailed description of blessings that follow one’s keeping of the mitzvot, how we can attain our Promised Land and be the eternal people, while, at the same time, outlining the curses that come with their desecration– exile and destruction.
The parashah opens as such:
וְעָנִ֨יתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ֜ לִפְנֵ֣י ׀ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י וַיֵּ֣רֶד מִצְרַ֔יְמָה וַיָּ֥גׇר שָׁ֖ם בִּמְתֵ֣י מְעָ֑ט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁ֕ם לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל עָצ֥וּם וָרָֽב.וַיָּרֵ֧עוּ אֹתָ֛נוּ הַמִּצְרִ֖ים וַיְעַנּ֑וּנוּ וַיִּתְּנ֥וּ עָלֵ֖ינוּ עֲבֹדָ֥ה קָשָֽׁה .וַנִּצְעַ֕ק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵ֑ינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵ֔נוּ וַיַּ֧רְא אֶת־עׇנְיֵ֛נוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵ֖נוּ וְאֶֽת־לַחֲצֵֽנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵ֤נוּ ה’ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם בְּיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ וּבִזְרֹ֣עַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבְמֹרָ֖א גָּדֹ֑ל וּבְאֹת֖וֹת וּבְמֹפְתִֽים. וַיְבִאֵ֖נוּ אֶל־הַמָּק֣וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַיִּתֶּן־לָ֙נוּ֙ אֶת־הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֔את אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽש. וְעַתָּ֗ה הִנֵּ֤ה הֵבֵ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־רֵאשִׁית֙ פְּרִ֣י הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תָּה לִּ֖י ה.
You shall speak and say before Hashem your God; “An Aramite destroyed my father, and went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number… and Hashem brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…and He brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now behold I have brought the first fruit of the land which You, O Hashem, have given me….”1
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that Aramite refers to Lavan and his intention to destroy Yakov and the entire Jewish nation. And so bringing the first fruits with this acknowledgement is a thank you to Hashem for saving the nation from destruction by Lavan and later at the hands of the Egyptians and instead bringing us to the Promised Land, “flowing with milk and honey”. We saw this earlier as well, when Hashem spoke to Moshe at the burning bush, informing Moshe that He would redeem the Israelites and bring them to a “good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”2
The Rebbe asks why we are commanded to mention these two instances– Lavan and Egypt– and not mention so many other miracles. He explains that these two might have been singled out since they threaten a total extermination of the nation and not just threats to an element or faction. But if that were the case, then we would have to mention Esau, since had he acted on what Yakov feared– “lest he come and smite me, the mother with the children”3— there would be no Jewish people either.
The Rebbe offers an incredible insight into human nature and the power of the mind to create seeming realities. The Rebbe argues that perhaps Esau didn’t constitute a real danger, since when they did meet after all those years, Yakov was unharmed. The threat then was sewed in Yakov’s mind, in his anxiety and apprehension. The difference with Lavan, who also did not harm Yakov, was that with Lavan his intention to do so was accounted by Hashem as if he had done what he intended. And Rashi explains why the verse reads, “An Aramite destroyed my father,” rather than “an Aramite sought to destroy…”: because Hashem reckons intention as deeds. Yakov’s danger at the hands of Lavan was something that was intended, whereas with Esau the danger was simply a possibility, but not something that would require a miracle to circumvent, and so it didn’t merit mention in the thanksgiving ritual.
The first fruits only became required once we entered, conquered, allocated and settled the Land. So the mitzvah was not a thanksgiving of the gift of the land by Hashem, but is contingent on our settling the land as a permanent home. Only then can we rejoice with peace of mind, and when we are at peace, blessings reveal themselves.
The same way we need to conquer and settle the physical promised land, we need to do that in our own struggle within our spiritual selves, making sure that we don’t doubt ourselves to the point of blocking our own blessings.
As Jay-Z says on Welcome to the Jungle:
Where did I go?
I’m losing myself,
I’m stuck in the moment
I look in the mirror,
my only opponent.4
Our own promised lands are in our own control. Sometimes it feels like it takes a miracle before we would see it or feel at ease and unified to the point that it would manifest as a feeling of peace or enlightenment, but we have to enter into the process within ourselves, conquer our own doubts and parts of us that act as enemies towards our own selves. When we can settle ourselves to a space of peace, then we can reach a feeling of our own Promised Land.
As we have seen in history, Israel could lay barren, as it has at times since our Exile after the destruction of our two Holy Temples, or it could be a land flowing with milk and honey, as it has been any time the Jews are its inhabitants.
The two examples of Lavan and Egypt are the two instances in which Yakov and the ancestors “settled” somewhere. Yakov stayed in Syria for 20 years, and the Israelites lived in Egypt for 210 years. It’s when we felt settled somewhere that was not us or ours and felt a seeming security in the space that enemies arose to destroy us, only to be defeated by Hashem.
The Chassidic view of the first fruits as explained in Or Hatorah 5:
The fruit of a tree is like the soul as it is enclothed by the body, and so the significance of offering the first fruits is the binding of the incarnate soul with its source, the Creator of all. This is done in two ways– the earthbound, which is the offering of the fruit itself (which is done on Shavuot, the fiftieth day from the start of the Counting of the Omer.), and the spiritual, drawing down the heavenly via the accompanying prayer.
Yakov’s journey to Lavan was a descent (from the spiritual south of Beersheva to the corruption of Haran)6, and so was the Israelite journey to Egypt. From within these two descents, Hashem performed miracles to save us from destruction and brought us to our Promised Land. And so these become the focus of our thanksgiving prayer and ritual– the redemption and unification that we need to constantly strive towards, through action and prayer; never, God forbid, being stuck or feeling settled in exile and detachment from the place we are actually meant to be. And so we can never rest and feel content with our own spiritual ascent and must know that there is always more work to be done, more conquering of our own inner struggle to work on, more reality to spiritualize for oneself and those around us. As the Rebbe teaches, the first fruits are meant to be dedicated to sanctity and, by doing so, we are fulfilling the purpose for which the world was created — to be made by man into a dwelling-place for Hashem.7
Israel is referred to as Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel, because the Hebrew word eReTz (land) comes from the same root as RaTzon (desire or will). Moving to Israel is called making aliyah, which means “going up.” Israel is at a higher altitude than its surrounding countries, but we call it “going up” because the pilgrimage to Israel (one we are commanded to do for the Shalosh Regalim / Three High Holiday Festivals) is a spiritual ascent. Eretz Yisrael is a source for accessing the spiritual journey and personal growth. The sweetness of the fruit of the land that we read about in our parashah represents the spiritual love and desire that can be absorbed in the land. But before we can access them, we face obstacles, which force us to earn it, while realizing how essential this end goal is.
All of this requires Emunah (faith) and Bitachon (trust), to draw Holiness down from above. To spiritualize reality, we first have to create a vessel for it, and that’s done by creating space that’s manifested from true emunah and bitachon. The only place in the world where we are commanded to keep shmita (the year of release) and yovel (the Jubilee year) is Israel. There is no act that personifies full faith more than releasing control of working the fields for an entire year every six years and again, to a greater extent, every forty nine years. As it’s written, “וְצִוִּ֤יתִי אֶת־בִּרְכָתִי֙ לָכֶ֔ם בַּשָּׁנָ֖ה הַשִּׁשִּׁ֑ית וְעָשָׂת֙ אֶת־הַתְּבוּאָ֔ה לִשְׁלֹ֖שׁ הַשָּׁנִֽים
My blessings for you in the sixth year will yield a crop sufficient for the three-year period.”8 In this pasuk (verse), Hashem addresses the worry people might have that they won’t have sufficient provisions for the year of the shmita and the years after it. Hashem says that He will bless the land and that, miraculously, there will be three years worth of provisions to reap in the sixth year, just before the shmita year. Just as there was a double portion of manna on Erev Shabbat when the Jews were in the desert, so too there will be extra produce before the shmita in the Promised Land, so the people can fully celebrate this moment of holy rest.
The most beautiful part of Shmita is that every seven years we are commanded to forgive all debts, to not work the land of Israel by planting or harvesting, and to let all of the produce that grows become hefker (“ownerless”), so that anyone can take and eat from it. Taking this a step further with yovel (the Jubilee year), in the 50th year, the land of Israel again must lie fallow; it may not be worked. And all land in Israel that was purchased in those fifty years is returned to its original owners, in addition to the cancellation of all debts and the freeing of all slaves. These laws pertain only to the land of Israel, as it says, “Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground.”9
The Arizal explains that true “freedom” is the release of consciousness from its constricted state, the ability to approach Divine understanding of the world.10 This is done by each of us in Israel, as it is done to the very land we stand on. This is all done in a hint towards a time when we won’t be constricted or held down by this world and its toil, instead we’ll be completely unified to purpose, oneness, and spirituality. This is referred to as the days of kulo Shabbat (entirely Shabbat). Our Sages referred to it as the Messianic era, when darkness will be fully transformed to light, and we won’t have to toil for our food. As King David sings, “let there be an abundance of grain on earth.”11
Chazal (Our Sages) teach that Yerushalyim was only destroyed when there were no longer men of faith,12 And the Midrash says in the merit of their faith, the Jews will be redeemed from exile.13 “When the Jews return from their exile, they will realize it was only the power of faith which brought about the redemption.” The very faith we carried since we left Egypt and became a nation is the very faith that we are reminded to continue to carry today.
A Chassidic Master, Schneur Zalman of Liadi, taught that even though the Exodus happened once, yesterday’s Exodus is today’s limitation from which we must free ourselves.14 The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim and is etymologically related to the word meitzar which means “limitation.” Jewish mystical thought explains that just as we recall the Yitziat Mitrayim (historical Exodus from Egypt), we have to continually leave our own proverbial Egypts. As it’s written, “Like the days you left Egypt.” 15 This world is a place of finitude, our bodies and natural animalistic tendencies tie down our souls. But at the same time, our emunah, our souls, can tap into the Light of Infinite and the Divine Source through tefillah, mitzvot, and learning Torah. In this way we overcome our natural negative inclinations and liberate ourselves from the finite shackles.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that the essence of emunah corresponds to tefillah (prayer) and miracles in the land of Israel, while the antithesis of emunah is Egypt and exile and the absence of miracles. Redemption, the coming of the Mashiach, is dependent upon abundant emunah.
The Zohar explains that tzedek (justice) and emunah are both forms of judgment. Kabbalistically they both relate to the feminine principle of Malkhut. The difference is that tzedek refers to a harsh decree, when punishment is issued with severity. But when emet (truth), the masculine principle of Tiferet, is coupled with tzedek, it then becomes emunah.16
Jumping back to the verses about the land flowing with milk and honey. Ramban (Nachmanides) teaches that the key in the verse is the word “flowing.” Because fruit trees grow in many different terrains, but their produce overflows with nectar only when the land is especially fertile, and when the trees are particularly well-nourished. Just as with livestock, they survive in many habitats, but only overflow with milk when they are in particularly fertile pastures. And so we see a “land flowing with milk and honey” is the manifestation of a blessing—the fertility of the Promised Land.
On Shabbat, we reap what we have sowed throughout the week, we meditate on the space of being and having been created, instead of being stuck in a circle of endless creation and trying to meld creation into our own benefits. With Shmita and Yovel in Eretz Yisrael we experience this to a much greater extent– we can abstain from working and toiling for our food and clearly see the hand of our creator and provider, as He provides bounty in a time when normally the seeds of doubt would be sowed. This is why the first fruits are offered as a thanksgiving, because they represent the continuous fruit and charity we receive from Hashem.
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Notes & Sources
- Deuteronomy 26:5-10
- Exodus 3:8
- Bereishit 32:12
- Jay-Z & Kanye West, “Welcome to the Jungle”
- Parsha Ki Tavo, p. 1040 ff
- Torah Or, Vayyetze 21a. Likkutei Sichot, Vol I
- Likkutei Sichot, Vol. XIV, pp. 93-98
- Vayikra 25:21
- Sh’mot 3:5
- R. Wilenfsky
- Psalms 72:16
- Shabbat 119b
- Tanchuma BeShalach 10
- Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Torah Or 71c
- Micah 7:15
- Likutei Moharan # 7:1, 2 p. 8