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Kee Tavo 5779-2019

“Welcoming the Stranger”
(Revised and updated from Kee Tavo 5760-2000)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo,opens with the ritual of bringing בִּכּוּרִיםBikkurim, the first fruits of the season, to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Deuteronomy 26:1 records the following declaration: וְהָיָה כִּי תָבוֹא אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר השׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ , It shall be, that when you enter the land that the L-rd your G-d gives you as an inheritance, when you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the L-rd your G-d gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and go to the place that the L-rd your G-d will choose, to make His name rest there.

By bringing the Bikkurim to the Temple and delivering them to the Kohen–the priest, Jews symbolically acknowledge that all their material assets are a gift of G-d. The Jew, therefore, brings this symbolic portion to G-d, as a sign of gratitude for G-d’s goodness.

The Mishnah in Bikkurim 3:1 describes the ritual of selecting the first fruits, recalling how the farmer tied a cord to the stems of the selected offerings and declared: “This is the Bikurim.”

Once the first fruits are harvested, they are brought with great fanfare to Jerusalem for dedication. The farmer would bring his Bikurim in a basket to the Kohen, then take it back temporarily, as he recited a brief summary of Jewish history underscoring how the land of Israel is a gift of G-d. At the conclusion of this declaration, the farmer would place his basket down before the altar, delivering it as a permanent gift to G-d.

Focus for a moment on one practical portion of the farmer’s declaration to the Kohen of those days: Deuteronomy 26:3,הִגַּדְתִּי הַיּוֹם לַהַשׁם אֱ־לֹקֶיךָ, כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע השׁם לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ , I declare today to the L-rd, your G-d, that I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us.

The rabbis ask the fundamental question: How can later generations of Jews say: “I have come to the land that the L-rd swore to our forefathers to give us”? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say: “Our forefathers came to the land”? A response to this question can be found in the Passover Haggadah where we declare בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, In every single generation each person must see themselves as if they themselves went out of Egypt. In effect, all Jews have an obligation to see themselves as an inseparable part of the Jewish nation, and everything that occurred to our forefathers in Egypt, happened not only to the ancient Israelites, but to us as well. Thus, the claim of Jewish tradition is that the Land of Israel was given personally to each Jew. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for contemporary Jews to declare: כִּי בָאתִי אֶל הָאָרֶץ ,-–I personally came to the land.

A fascinating aspect of this question is the issue of whether a ger–a convert to Judaism, is entitled to say this declaration for the Bikkurim. After all, G-d did not give his/her ancestors the land. The Mishnah in Bikkurim (1:4) records this dispute. “The proselyte brings [first fruits], but does not recite [the declaration], since he cannot say: Which the L-rd swore unto our fathers to give to us…(Deuteronomy 26:3), and when he prays in private he says: ‘The G-d of the forefathers of Israel.’ When he prays in the synagogue he says: ‘The G-d of our fathers.’”

This opinion, cited in an anonymous Mishnah, which is usually attributed to Rabbi Meir, indicates that when making a declaration before G-d, one must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, a convert to Judaism may not say “G-d of my fathers,” since it is not true.

However, this practice is not the accepted ruling. In fact, it is explained entirely differently in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bikkurim 1:4): “It was learned in the name of Rabbi Judah–A proselyte himself brings the first fruits and recites the [regular] formula. Why so? ‘For a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.’” Originally, he [Abraham] was the father of Aram [the country of his birth], from now on he is the father of all humanity. Rabbi Joshua ben Levy said: “The laws are in accordance with Rabbi Judah.”

Maimonides, in his epistle to Obadiah, the proselyte, concurs: “Behold that has made clear to you that you should say, ‘Which the L-rd swore to our forefathers.’ And that Abraham is your father, and that of all the righteous who follow his ways. This applies to all benedictions and prayers. You should not alter anything.”

Maimonides, as the rabbis before him, proves clearly that Judaism is not a biological or racial tradition, it is rather a spiritual inheritance. Consequently, anyone who adopts the spiritual teachings of Judaism is entitled to say that he/she is the disciple of Abraham, who introduced monotheism to the world.

It is no coincidence that parashat Kee Tavo is read in the month of Elul, prior to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Days of Repentance and introspection. Parashat Kee Tavo includes the terribly ominous תּוֹכֵחָה To’chay’cha, the warning of the retribution that G-d will visit upon those who do not follow G-d’s words. This shrill message, shakes us to the core, reminding us that it is time for self-evaluation and repentance. But, how does the ritual of bringing of Bikkurim, the first fruits, dovetail with the theme of the Days of Awe and Repentance? Perhaps the question that was previously raised serves as the connection. After all, each of us is a גֵרger, each of us is in some way a stranger to Judaism.

During the month of Elul and the High Holidays, it is incumbent upon all Jews, whether man or woman, to look inside themselves, to check their deeds, to find the “stranger,” the “alien” in themselves that has allowed them to succumb to forbidden actions. We are not Canaanites, we are not Jebusites–we are all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We have boldly and proudly declared that the L-rd is our G-d. There is no room for the alien in us, because there is no alien. The stranger within us needs to be welcomed, and become an integral part of ourselves, dominated by good deeds and superior morality.

It is in this spirit that we enter the month of Elul, the time of Teshuvah, and the Days of Repentance.

May you be blessed.