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Ki Tavo is dominated initially by what is referred to as Parshat Bikurim [first fruits] followed by the Brachot & Klalot [blessings & curses] and then the section known as the ‘Tochecha’- Admonition.
Today’s sidrah expands on the mitzvah of Bikurim as mentioned in Shmot [Ch. 23 V.19] ‘…the first fruits of your land shall you bring to the House of the Lord’.
We learn of some of the details of the ceremony when farmers brought their first fruits to the Kohen in Temple times. Part of the ceremony was a declaration in Hebrew made by the farmer which was essentially a brief synopsis of Jewish History emphasizing the divine connection to the land of Israel.
The Mishna in Bikurim further elaborates in precise detail and gives us additional insights as to who could participate, what fruits could be brought, the order of the procession to Jerusalem, the ceremony and how some practices evolved.
What is of particular significance is the statement in Bikurim [Chapter 3, Mishna 7] that, at the outset whoever could read the declaration in Hebrew did so, but later, the Rabbis amended this part of the ceremony and appointed someone to read irrespective if one could or could not read the Hebrew. The Mishna explains that the change was made as those who could not read, stopped bringing their first fruits to the Temple out of shame and embarrassment in not being able to read the Hebrew declaration.
What is intriguing is that in the following Mishna, [Ch 3, Mishna 8], we read that the wealthy brought their first fruits in baskets of silver and gold whereas the poor used willow baskets. This anomaly is highlighted by the Tosfot Yom Tov [R’ Yom Tov Lipman Heller d. 1654 Krakow] who questions this practice and suggests that all should have brought their fruit in uniform baskets to save the poor from embarrassment.
My late father ז’ל in one of his books ‘Around the Tents of the Torah’, explains this inconsistency by pointing to Proverbs Chapter 22 Verse 2, where King Solomon posits that as wealth is in the hands and at the discretion of the Almighty, the issue of shame is therefore not relevant with regard to the differing baskets brought by rich and poor.
Attitudes have certainly changed and whereas once ignorance was not only shameful for the individual, but also one’s family and community this is not necessarily the case today. Today G8 summits and other conferences are organised to highlight the gulf between rich and poor, but there are not many conferences aimed at improving Hebrew reading and Jewish education.
How often at a Shiva House or a cemetery, when there is a call to participate in Hebrew reading, is it greeted with the all too familiar silence. Being ignorant of our faith is one of the great calamities of the post Shoah generation. There simply is no longer any shame.
I often feel we have failed so many who now feel so disconnected and consequently little or no way of appreciating the richness and values of Judaism. The first step is the ability to read Hebrew without which the wealth of knowledge is mostly inaccessible. There have been, however, positive signs in our community over the past 20 years – more Jewish day schools have been established. The way forward is to educate, educate & educate-for this will yield real bracha!