One of the great rabbis of America in the 20th century, Rabbi Mordechai Pinchas Teitz of Elizabeth, New Jersey, used to say that “the Torah speaks in the language of tomorrow”. By that he meant that as world events unfold, the Torah offers us insight that we didn’t even see in earlier generations. There are things in the Torah that refer to events in the future and sometimes we only understand these teachings after the events have taken place. As our sages tell us, G-d looked into the Torah and created the world; and as the Mishna says: “Turn it over and over for everything is in it.” Hashem gave us the Torah for all times and all places; it is an eternal document.
The Torah’s prediction of the delegitimisation of Israel
Interestingly – and tragically – the Torah foresaw the constant attack on Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, with the world claiming that it doesn’t belong to the Jewish people. In fact, in Rashi’s very first comment on the Chumash at the beginning of Genesis, he asks why the Torah begins with the book of Genesis – the story of Creation, and then the Forefathers – the more narrative portions of the Torah, when really the Torah is a book of commandments. Quoting from the Midrash, Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins with the story of Creation is because one day the nations of the world will accuse the Jewish people of stealing the land of Israel and say we have no right to this land; then we will say but G-d created the world and everything in it, and He gave us the land of Israel. The fact that Hashem gave it to us is our claim to the land, our title deed. Whether or not the nations of the world accept this argument is beside the point; the issue is that we will have justification in our connection to the land of Israel.
The mitzvah of bikkurim
It is indeed remarkable how our sages’ words from thousands of years ago foreshadowed events taking place now, at the beginning of the 21st century. This issue regarding our right to the land of Israel is dealt with in this week’s parsha, Ki Tavo, in the famous mitzvah of bikkurim – the mitzvah to bring the first fruits to the Temple. Nowadays children prepare fruit baskets for the festival of Shavuot, which is not the real fulfilment of the mitzvah of bikkurim, just a simulation, because we do not have a Temple. The parsha discusses what actually took place in the Temple: when the farmer identified the very first fruits that blossomed on the trees, he would mark them by tying a red ribbon around them and, once they ripened, he would place them in a basket, bring them to Jerusalem and present them to the priests in the Temple.
What is most unusual about this mitzvah is that when the farmer brought his basket to the Temple, he would make the following declaration, with which we are all familiar as it is a key passage from the Haggada of Pesach, summarising Jewish history:
“An Aramean near to ruin was my father and he went down to Egypt and he stayed there as a stranger, few in number; and there he became a great, strong and numerous nation; and then the Egyptians treated us badly and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried out to G-d, the G-d of our Forefathers, and He heard our voice and saw our affliction and our misery and our oppression and He brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and now, see, I have brought the first of the fruits of the ground, which you, O G-d, have given to me.”
The purpose of the declaration with bikkurim
The Malbim asks the following: all of the various offerings that were brought to the Temple – tithes, sacrifices – were not accompanied by such declaration of Jewish history. Why does bikkurim have such a declaration? Furthermore, asks the Malbim, the Mishna of bikkurim, which deals with this mitzvah, says that there was a great ceremony for the farmers as they came up to Jerusalem. There was a procession, in front of which was a bull with horns decorated with gold, garlanded with beautiful branches on his head; there was a whole musical procession that entered the city of Jerusalem, and as they entered, all the inhabitants of the city would come out to greet them. People would stop their work to welcome them into the city, and at certain times even the king participated and came out to welcome them. They would arrive in the Temple and the Levites would sing a song from the book of Psalms, chapter 30, which we say in our morning prayers – mizmor shir chanukat habayit l’David.
What is so special about the mitzvah of bikkurim that it warranted such a declaration, and such a grand, beautiful ceremony?
Bikkurim publicly declared our connection to the land of Israel
The Malbim explains that bikkurim was a celebration and a public declaration of the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel. The declaration states that we were in Egypt, we were afflicted and G-d took us out; He brought us to the land of milk and honey and these are the first fruits of the land.
Part of the mitzvah is gratitude to Hashem, to declare that all the bounty comes from Him. One of the fundamental teachings of Judaism is that everything we have in life comes from Hashem. The way we show our gratitude is by giving the best and the first to G-d. For example, the mitzvah of Pidyon haBen, of redeeming a first-born son, acknowledges that everything comes from Hashem and we pay tribute to Him. Similarly the mitzvah of bikkurim is a tribute to G-d, a declaration that everything we have comes from Him, in particular the land of Israel. Acknowledging G-d’s gift of the land of Israel is part of what this mitzvah of bikkurim is all about. The Malbim says this declaration was stated in order to silence the nations of the world who would come and say that we have no right to the land of Israel. The Malbim quotes the passage from Rashi mentioned above, that one day we would be accused of stealing the land, and says that the mitzvah of the first fruits and the declaration in particular was for everybody to know the full sweep of Jewish history: this is where we come from; it was given by G-d and we celebrate this connection. This is also why it was done in such a public way, so the connection would be publicised proudly and beautifully.
Our right to the land of Israel is contingent on the Torah
Taking this one step further, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out the following about this declaration: the relationship between the Jewish people and the land of Israel is the most unusual relationship between a nation and its land, and in fact does not exist anywhere else in the world. Rabbi Hirsch points out that Abraham was not born in the land of Israel, but in Aram – Mesopotamia. Hashem told him Lech lecha, “Go to the land that I will show you.” This is truly a very unusual birth of a nation, where the founding father of the nation was not even born in the land. Abraham gets to Israel and has to leave shortly thereafter because there is a famine. He does come back and his son Isaac is born in Israel. However, Jacob, though born in Israel, has to flee from his brother Esau and runs away to Aram, where Abraham came from. He spends twenty years there, and returns only to descend to Egypt to join his son Joseph during the years of famine. Jacob and his household – the entire Jewish people at that time – move to Egypt and the exile begins. They are taken out with great miracles and brought back to the land of Israel.
Usually, nations live in a certain geographic area and develop certain customs, a philosophy and religion in that region. But the Jewish people have a very unusual connection to their homeland. This is how Rabbi Hirsch explains Arami oved avi, “my father was an Aramean who was close to ruin” – referring to Jacob, who was always on the run; “vayered Mitzraima”, he had to go down to Egypt. Normally a nation lives in a country and then develops its customs, religion and philosophy of life. But we were not born into our land; G-d redeemed us and brought us to it. The Torah was not even given in the land of Israel. Abraham, the founding father of the Jewish people, was not born in Israel. Even Jacob, the father of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, spends a very significant portion of his life outside of Israel. He dies in exile in Egypt and, years later, the whole nation has to be taken out of Egypt.
This declaration that asserts the Jews’ right to the land of Israel was read out by farmers in the Temple year after year, outlining the course of Jewish history and stating that we were not born in the land of Israel; our right to the land is not because we are natives of the land but because G-d gave it to us. The farmers declared this once a year because, explains Rabbi Hirsch, the message of the Jewish people is, ultimately, that what G-d wants from human beings more than anything else is to live in accordance with His will as He revealed in His Torah. The defining identity of the Jewish people is the Torah that Hashem gave us, and the land of Israel was given to us as the platform to express the values in the Torah. Therefore, the people could not be born in the land but only with the giving of the Torah itself; the land was given on condition that we would be loyal to the Torah’s principles.
This idea of Rabbi Hirsch is expressed in another mitzvah in this week’s parsha, where the people are commanded that on entering the land of Israel, they engrave the words of the Torah on stones and put them up as monuments. The Abarbanel comments that these stones served the function of a giant mezuzah; what a mezuzah is for a house – a declaration that the house is founded on principles of Torah – these stones were for the land of Israel. They served as a reminder that the land is ours for us to uphold the values and principles of the Torah.
The Abarbanel points out that the way of the world is that when nations conquer land, they build great statues and monuments to commemorate their victory and glory. In commanding them to erect these stones, Hashem was saying, do not put up monuments to celebrate your own victory, because that’s not what it’s about. Rather, engrave words of the Torah on the stones. These victories were given to us by G-d in order to give expression to the values of the Torah. Let that be our moral guide – that the land was given to us to keep the Torah.
This is why, as we also find mentioned in our parsha, the Torah says if we sin, we will go into exile and be scattered all over the globe. This is indeed a remarkable prediction; what other nation has been exiled, scattered all over the globe – and survived? In our times we are already seeing the return of Jews to the land of Israel. The concept that a people can be scattered all over and survive being exiled from their land is unique to the Jewish people, because our connection to the land is based on the fact that G-d gave it to us, for the purpose of using it as a platform to express the values of the Torah. This is the essential Jewish mission and what Jewish identity is all about. Therefore, the very declaration that asserts the Jewish right to the land of Israel states that this right was part of a broader mission – an obligation. It was not just a nationalism based on a connection of the people to their land. It was part of a noble mission to bring G-d’s values and principles to the world. Every farmer made this declaration, saying, I am coming to celebrate the land of Israel – not the land itself but our connection to G-d.