Ki Tavo: The Call To Joy
(Wilderness Sunset in the Negev - photo by HRM)
Deuteronomy 26 – 29:8
I wanted to begin today with a reading from the Talmud.
But please don’t run away!
Please allow me to explain.
When people say of a congregation, ‘they teach Talmud’, its generally followed by never hearing from or seeing that particular person again. Which makes sense in light of our Christian backgrounds and many of the things said in the New Testament of the Pharisees traditions. People’s disappearance after mentioning Talmud though tends to be because ‘teaching Talmud’ is implied that those doing the teaching are somehow teaching people to live their life by the oral traditions of Judaism. In that context, it makes sense when people ‘do a runner’.
But allow me to clarify that I am not teaching you to venerate or to live your life by the Talmud; though I do have a favorable view to many rabbinic teachings, which is not the view of HRM in general. There are times however where the Talmud helps our understanding of the ancient world in the times preceding Jesus, and in the time of Jesus. Israel was, funnily enough, a land full of Jews, where Rabbis led synagogues, churches didn’t exist, and it was well…all very Jewish. So, understanding Jewish culture and their perceptions of the Torah, whilst it may not be a perception we share, can be very informative.
That said; this reading I acquired from the ‘Sefer Ha Aggadah’ which is a collection of Jewish traditions to the Bible. I don’t actually have a Talmud, and the reason why I would like to read this is because it paints a very nice picture of how Israel performed the First Fruits offering which is the beginning topic of our portion ‘Ki Tavo’.
I want to read from the Sefer because the First Fruits is a monumental event in the life of Israel. Maybe it is just me, but I find it to be quite easy to read the words of the Bible and to really not appreciate the weight of what is being said. I gloss over the words, say to myself ‘yep, the people had to offer the first fruits, got it’, and then move on, failing to realize that the people, being millions of people, rich and poor alike, were required to go to the Temple and present their First Fruits, and it would have been quite the scene.
Describing this, the Sefer Ha Aggadah, which I believe is quoting from Tractate Bikkurim of the Talmud, states;
How are the first fruits taken up to Jerusalem? All the inhabitants of the towns that make up a lay post assemble in the city of the head of that post, but spend the night in its open place without entering any of the houses. Early in the morning, the head of the post says, ‘Let us arise and go up to Zion, unto the house of the Lord our God’. (Jer 31:6)
Those who live near Jerusalem bring fresh figs and grapes, but those from a distance bind dried figs and raisins. Before them walks an ox, its horns overlaid with gold, a crown of olive leaves on its head. A flute strikes the tempo for their procession until they approach Jerusalem. When they arrive close to Jerusalem, they send messengers to announce their coming. Meanwhile, they arrange their first fruits in an ornamental display. Governors of priests, chiefs of the Levites, and treasurers of the Temple go out to meet them. The number of those going out varies in keeping with the number of the entrants. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem are required to rise up before them and greet them: ‘Brethren, men of such and such a place, peace be upon your coming’.
The flute continues to strike the tempo before them until they reach the Temple Mount. When they reach the Temple Mount, even King Agrippa places a basket on his shoulder and walks as far as the Temple Court. As they approach the court the Levites sing ‘I will extol thee, o Lord, for thou has raised me up and has not suffered mine enemies to rejoice over me’ (Psalm 30:2).
The turtledoves tied to each basket are offered up as burnt offerings, but the baskets of first fruits that people hold in their hands they present to the priests.
While the basket is yet on his shoulder, each man recites the passage beginning: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord thy God (Deut. 26:3), until he reaches the end of the passage (Deut. 26 :10). R. Judah said: Until he reaches ‘A wandering Aramean sought to slay my Father (Deut 26:5). When he reaches these words, he takes the basket off his shoulder and holds it by its rim, and the priest places his hand under it and waves it. Then the Israelite begins to recite ‘An Aramean sought to slay my Father’ until he completes the entire passage. He then deposits the basket by the side of the altar, prostrates himself and departs.
Originally, all who knew how to recite the prescribed words in Hebrew would recite them, while those unable to do so repeated after the priest. But when people began to refrain from bringing first fruits in shame of their ignorance, it was decided that both those who could as well as those who could not recite them in Hebrew should recite the words after the priest.
The rich brings their first fruits in baskets overlaid with silver and gold, while poor bring them in wicker baskets made of peeled willow branches and give both baskets and first fruits to the priests.
By reading this demonstrated the context and enormity of the procedure really struck me.
But hopefully you have gathered by now that the first fruits is an agricultural offering to God, and this offering of the first fruits was not a once off thing. Israel had 3 main harvests each year, the spring grain harvest, the summer grape harvest and the autumn olive harvest. From the reading above we can glean that other things were also offered up as ‘first fruits’ due to the mention of figs etc. and traditionally, anything that is native to the land of Israel was offered up and could be a part of the first fruits offering.
It would have been a great event to behold and a great ‘equalizer’. By that I mean that the rich and the poor alike where commanded to take part in this procession going up to the temple. Even in traditional Jewish law, one of Judaism’s great minds, a rabbi called Maimonides, stressed that this commandment, though it involve Israel nationally, is an individual commandment where one could not send a ‘shaleach’. Shaleach being the word which means ‘sent one’, as in a messenger, and is referring to wealthy land owners who might be inclined to send someone to the Temple to present their first fruits on their behalf. There is no such allowance for this in the Torah and the traditional interpretation stressed the incumbent nature of this command on the individual.
Despite this command been an ‘equalizer’ as I’ve put it, our reading from tractate bikkurim did indicate that there is yet some distinctions seen between the rich, who brought their first fruits in silver and gold baskets, and the poor who brought their first fruits in wicker baskets. Well, the tractate also points out that the wicker baskets were kept by the temple whilst the baskets of the rich were not. In other Jewish texts it describes how the lay people would decorate their wicker baskets with beautiful art work and how the offering of the poor, and the added effort they put into their baskets, was cherished much more by the Temple who keep their baskets because they were all the more precious.
Interestingly enough, in Jewish writings, there is a bit of a focus on the baskets mentioned in our text in verse 2, because the Torah does specifically say, that the first fruit offering is to be put in a basket. So, you could say, that to not present your offering in a basket is to not accurately understand the text or to fulfill the commandment. I know we think that doesn’t matter but the text says it, and in Israel they took that seriously and everyone presented their first fruits in a basket. In just a few words our God has guaranteed the basket business for all eternity
But the baskets can teach us a few things.
Firstly, that our best is viewed as equal in the eyes of God. The rich could not bring cart loads of first fruits to elevate themselves or shame the poor; and just like the poor and the common man, at the end of the day; we all stand before God with just a simple basket in our hands.
We can further understand from this that the fruit itself is not the point of the first fruits offering. Make no mistake, God does not need the fruit of our labor, nor does he sustain himself from the work of our hands. The point of the first fruits offering is not in the material, but in things much deeper. It’s in the equality it gives to Israel, in the humility and gratitude that it requires, in the reminder that it is God who sustains us, that our loyalty to Him, through obeying Him, is the cause of our collective and individual success.
Ultimately, the first fruits reminds us that it is through our loyalty to God’s covenant that we are sustained, and that it is through his great power that we are saved. Contextually, this also communicated to Israel, quite clearly, that their success when entering the land depended on God.
The point of the first fruits is all this, and it is the declaration itself that we are commanded to recite when bringing the first fruits that is the point of this whole process, the declaration is more important than the fruit itself, that we collectively, yet individually, stand before God and acknowledge that he saved us from Egypt and that he delivered us into Israel.
The point of the first fruits is God, it’s not us, and it’s not that we acknowledge the best that we’ve given to God, but that we acknowledge the best that He’s given to us.
Which brings us to a little side note I would like to stress. We often view our offerings as things that belong to us and that we are therefore giving to God. This is not so, the first fruit offering, though we are allowed the privilege of giving it to God, is really us giving to Him what is rightfully His. Because of this, in Malachi 3:8 – 10 we see God considering Israel withholding the offerings and tithes as robbing Him.
Continuing though, this process of the first fruits binds Israel as a nation; causing us to stand together as a community.
If the Torah is true, and it is, then consider that one day that we will stand before our King and recite the words, ‘‘My father was a perishing Aramean, and he went down to Mitsrayim and sojourned there with few men. And there he became a nation, great, mighty, and numerous. ‘But the Mitsrites did evil to us, and afflicted us, and imposed hard labour on us.’
Not them, back when all this happened, but Egypt did evil to us, to you and I, because this Torah is our constitution and our collective history. Notice that the wording of the declaration is personal and doesn’t encourage any kind of distinction from the person reciting them from the nation of Israel.
Notice also in Exodus 13 when referring to the Passover that we are again commanded to recite certain words. The Scripture says;
Exodus 13:8 (The Scriptures)
8 “.. you shall inform your son in that day, saying, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I came up from Mitsrayim.’
Not them. But what God has done for you and I when he delivered us from Egypt, as He will again. So, first fruits binds Israel a sheaf and as a nation causes us to be the first fruits of God. As Hosea says; “I found Yisra’ěl like grapes in the wilderness. I saw your fathers as the first-fruits on the fig tree in its beginning. (Hosea 9:10)
It seems then that the fruit itself is not necessarily the fruit presented, but Israel.
The ‘resheet’ (Hebrew for first, referring to ‘first’ fruits) then, which we present to God is so much more than mere fruit. Even novices of Scripture are aware that ‘fruit’ is a reference to so much more. ‘Fruit’ refers to what our actions and behaviors gives life too, also to what our inner beliefs and feelings bear fruit of and bears witness to etc.
In this vein Maimonides says;
Everything that is for the sake of G‑d should be of the best and most beautiful. When one builds a house of prayer, it should be more beautiful than his own dwelling. When one feeds the hungry, he should feed him of the best and sweetest of his table. When one clothes the naked, he should clothe him with the finest of his clothes. Whenever one designates something for a holy purpose, he should sanctify the finest of his possessions, as it is written (Leviticus 3:16), “The choicest to G‑d.”
Continuing this thought the Lubavicher Rebbe says;
The rule “the choicest to G‑d,” applies in all areas of life…If one’s talents are to be divided between two occupations, one whose primary function is to pay the bills and a second which benefits his fellow man, he should devote his keenest abilities to the latter. In devoting the “first-ripened fruits” of his life to G‑d, a person in effect is saying: “Here lies the focus of my existence. Quantitatively, this may represent but a small part of what I am and have; but the purpose of everything else I do and possess is to enable this percentile of spirit to rise above my matter-clogged life.”
Meaning that whilst you and I may work full time jobs that we do not like, that the point of our existence nonetheless is for the service of God. Our first fruits then, that we present to our Father, may not be our 9 – 5, but our inner devotions, our inner purpose, and the state of our loyalty to God.
In everyone’s life we are all able to bring our ‘resheet’ to our Father, and whether or not you’re a Torah scholar, or a toilet cleaner, God shows no partiality and we are all able to present the best of our labors to Him.
We can enact this today in our daily lives. We may not be able to change the work we do, the toilets we have to clean, but we can set our purpose for living on God, and ensure that what we do for Him, that it is the best that we can do.
First fruits teaches that we are all servants of God and all active participants in the His Kingdom.
Thirdly, or secondly (?), the festival of first fruits has many prophetic and deeper spiritual implications. One thing I will point out is that the sages have seen within the offering of the first fruits something that I would describe as the resurrection of the dead; where, taking a symbolic view of the first fruits process, they liken the basket of the offering to man’s flesh and the fruit then to one’s soul. In seeing this the sages point out that man is like the fruit which is enclosed in flesh, the basket, and that the process of offering the first fruit to God is how mankind is perfected, where our soul is given back to our Creator and released from the flesh that we currently dwell in.
Whilst that might all sound a little ridiculous, this relationship between the first fruits and the resurrection sits well with our understanding of the Messiah and of the New Testament.
1 Corinthians 15:20 (The Scriptures)
20 But now Messiah has been raised from the dead, and has become the first-fruit of those having fallen asleep.
Further, the first fruits which are presented to God can be likened to the remnant of Israel that will be selected and presented to God. This point alone could be the cause of a very long and fascinating study. I point this out though just so that you are aware of this. The first fruits is the remnant, the best of all the fruit, and its intimately connected, as Deuteronomy 26 + 27 point out, to those keeping the commandments. So there will be people who are of the fruit of God, and then ‘meresheet’.
‘Resheet’ in the Hebrew being the first fruit, the best, but ‘meresheet’, which is actually in our text here in Deuteronomy 26, is referring to the ‘best of the best’. Some have said this refers to the Bride of Messiah, as opposed to simply the Body of Messiah; a difference many like to debate and disagree with.
Do it Joyfully
I want to shift our focus to verse;
Deuteronomy 26:11 (The Scriptures)
11 [You] shall rejoice in all the good which יהוה your Elohim has given to you and your house, you and the Lěwite and the stranger who is among you.
Because Ki Tavo teaches us much about joy.
Perhaps we don’t see this, but Scriptures shows us that joy differs greatly from happiness, and that our modern understanding of these things does not match the Bible’s view.
Life, for example in the west, is defined by man’s pursuit of happiness. Aristotle himself said that happiness is the ultimate good at which humans aim.
In our current context, happiness is the pursuit of self and is all too much a pursuit dictated by our own selfish desires (I’m a little jaded at the moment). Further, how one achieves happiness is dictated by the desires of our culture. So how happy you are today is weighed against your wealth, your status, you relationships, and largely your material possessions. Happiness is synonymous with our concept of success.
We need to be careful to not compare how happy or successful we are by the standards of the world we currently live in.
In a little aside I want to point out something;
Verse 26 says;
Deuteronomy 26:6 (The Scriptures)
6 ‘But the Mitsrites did evil to us, and afflicted us, and imposed hard labour on us.
Which paints that all too clear picture of an Israel suffering under the harsh slavery of Egypt.
There is however an allusion to be seen here in that the Hebrew can be referring to something else.
The verse does not literally say, ‘Egypt did evil to us’, but rather, literally ‘Egypt made us bad’. ‘Making’ us bad, does not speak to the Egyptians whipping us or been harsh to us, it speaks to making something bad, in the sense of corrupting it. Thus, the Egyptians, ‘corrupted us’.
Additionally, that word translated as ‘evil’, is actually derived from the Hebrew root word which means ‘friend, or neighbor’. So the verse, ‘the Egyptians did evil to us’, can be understood as;
‘the Egyptians befriended us’.
I know this is not a popular message. But be careful who you are friends with, and of the things you are learning off the people you associate with. Israel’s slavery was a time of harsh punishment, but it was also a time of corruption which required 40 years in the wilderness to be rid of it.
As the Psalmists says;
Psalm 106:35 (The Scriptures)
35 [They] mixed with the gentiles
And learned their works
But back to happiness.
Biblically speaking, happiness is not the focus of life and is achieved through very different means than we what we currently see. The Psalmists writes;
Psalm 1:1–3 (The Scriptures)
[Happy] is the man who shall not walk in the counsel of the wrong,
And shall not stand in the path of sinners,
And shall not sit in the seat of scoffers,
2 But his delight is in the Torah of יהוה,
And he meditates in His Torah day and night.
3 For he shall be as a tree
Planted by the rivers of water,
That yields its fruit in its season,
And whose leaf does not wither,
And whatever he does prospers.
Despite this though, happiness differs from a state of joy, in that it is an internal and individual state of mind.
When we see joy in the Bible, including Ki Tavo, it is always shared.
It is always shared with God, shared with our families, and shared with the Levites, with the poor, the orphans and the widows. Joy is typically mentioned as part of the festivals, in the offerings which are eaten as a community, when a man is married to His wife, and in our communion with God.
Joy has to do with a sense of connection. It comes from a different place to happiness. As Rabbi Sacks puts it; ‘It is a social emotion. It is the exhilaration we feel when we merge with others. It is the redemption of solitude….the pursuit of happiness can lead, ultimately, to self regard and indifference to the sufferings of others…not so joy. Joy connects us to others and to God. Joy is the ability to celebrate life as such, knowing that whatever tomorrow may bring, that we are here today, under God’s heaven, in the universe He made, to which he has invited us to be His guests…a people that can know insecurity and still feel joy is one that can never be defeated, for its spirit can never be broken nor its hope destroyed’.
Despite everything that I have already written, joy is a central theme to the portion Ki Tavo, and to the book of Deuteronomy, and it is required when giving our first fruits to God.
Joy is scarcely mentioned prior to Deuteronomy, just mentioned once in each other book of the Torah but 12 times in the book of Deuteronomy. In Ki Tavo, the commandment of the first fruits is to be done with joy, and further in Deuteronomy 28 the curses therein are provoked ‘because you did not serve the Lord your God with joy and gladness of heart out of the abundance of all things (Deuteronomy 28:47).
The implications for understanding Biblical joy is great. It means that joy is found in our unity with God, it’s found in love defined by covenantal devotion to God, defined in sharing our first fruit, the very best that we have with one another as a community; joy is something that denies self and is ultimately found in the heart of God. No wonder than that we are so often called to rejoice through suffering for the cause of God, because it connects us to our Messiah, to our community, and serves a greater good.
As joy is communal, not individual, it is intimately connected to sacrifice and suffering. It is the decision to step out of our comfort zones to connect with another, to sacrifice our wants and desires, to bring happiness to another. And happiness brought to another, is joy shared between brothers.
But joy, though it is a communally shared experience, is an individual choice. You see our portion, called Ki Tavo, is translated as ‘when you enter’. But equally correct though is the rendering of ‘if you enter’; implying that entering into Israel, which is symbolic of so many things including the resurrection, is a choice that we all make. Our first verse states that God is giving the land to Israel, but it is an ‘if’; if we would just accept partnership with God, and willingly choose to cross.
Ki Tavo then, is a call to experience true joy, if, we would but choose to enter.