Ki Tavo 5779 – Expressing Gratitude and Ki Tavo Fiddler Parody

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Living in Israel will entail additional obligations, and in the beginning of this parashah Moses describes one of these additional obligations:  Bikkurim- the first-fruit ceremony.  The mitzvah of Bikkurim will be fulfilled long after Moses has died, after the conquest of the land and division of tribal portions, after homes are built, and after fields and orchards and vineyards are planted.  The first Bikkurim ceremony occurred 14 years after entering Israel. The ritual is designed to place the celebration of the harvest into historical as well as spiritual context, culminating in the harvest that symbolized our status as a free and holy nation. Jewish farmers took their most precious harvest in hand and reminded themselves how it came to be.   Not all fruits were subject to the mitzvah of Bikkurim – only from those seven species native to the land of Israel are used. These include wheat and barley, grapes and figs and pomegranates, oil-producing olives and honey producing dates. Rather than self-congratulation for their resourcefulness and success, the purpose of the Bikkurim is to demonstrate gratitude and give praise to God for the good he did in bringing us to Israel and affording us the opportunity to enjoy the fruits for which the land is praised.

The Bikkurim is not about nature but about the shape of history, the birth of Israel as a nation, and the redemptive power of God who liberated our ancestors from slavery. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that what was happening in Jerusalem when people brought their first fruits was of immense consequence. It meant that they regularly told the story of who they were and why. No nation has ever given greater significance to retelling its collective story than Judaism, which is why Jewish identity is the strongest the world has ever known.

In the Mishnah is a detailed account of what happened during Bikkurim.  It was a magnificent ceremony. In historical context, however, its most significant aspect was the declaration which each individual had to make:” My father was a wandering Aramaean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous… Then the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders.”

The farmers’ first fruit recitation is a rare instance of the Torah prescribing the precise words of prayer rather than leaving it to the inspiration of the worshipers’ heart. The recitation summarizes the historical basis of Jewish identity.  One of the advantages of a set liturgy, in addition to uniting all Jews across barriers of time, is that it reminds us of things we might not think of on our own.

In the absence of the Temple, the mitzvah of Bikkurim no longer applies. However, there are numerous ways in which we carry on the spirit of the mitzvah. The text of the Bikkurim was selected to become a fundamental part of the Passover Haggadah, and the Seder plate is seen as a symbolic representation of the Bikkurim basket. Thus, the entire Seder experience becomes an annual reenactment of the Bikkurim ceremony. Why was this text chosen? It is a wonderfully succinct telling of our exodus from Egypt and expression of our gratitude to God, just the right text to be recited during the Passover Seder.  Remember, the primary theme of the Bikkurim is that of gratitude, appreciating the good we are given. It teaches us how important it is to verbally acknowledge God, our principal benefactor.

Gratitude was at the heart of what Moses had to say about the Israelites and their future in the promised land. Gratitude had not been a strong point in the desert. The people complained about lack of food and water, about the manna and lack of meat and vegetables, about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians as they were leaving and about the inhabitants of the land they were about to enter. They lacked gratitude during difficult times. A greater danger still, said Moses, would be a lack of gratitude during the good times in the future.  Appreciation for what God does for us is the foundation of religious life. The Bikkurim ritual, and the joyous way in which it is performed, allow us to thank God for our bountiful, miraculous sustenance.

Rifat Sonsino notes that gratitude is a powerful tool for expressing our deepest feelings for everything we have and are. Our prayer book is replete with sentiments of gratitude to God, who is the ultimate source of our existence. When we rise in the morning, we are expected to recite Modeh Ani,” I am grateful” to God for bringing life to me each and every day. In the blessing after meals, we thank God for sustaining the world with goodness kindness and mercy. Also in the prayer Modim Anachnu Lach,” we are grateful to you” we thank God for our souls. The Bikkurim, like the Modeh Ani prayer, is a declaration of indebtedness and gratitude to God.

Dennis Prager has written that gratitude is the key to happiness and anything that undermines gratitude must undermine happiness. And nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude: the more expectations you have, the less gratitude you will have.  According to Prager, having gratitude leads to a good and happy life. Grateful people walk around with the belief that they are truly fortunate. This sense of thankfulness not only makes a person happier, but also more kind. In short, almost everything good flows from gratitude. Therefore, the converse is also true: almost everything bad flows from ingratitude. Prager contends that it is impossible for an ungrateful person to be happy or good.

The first reason why ungrateful people are not good or happy people is that a lack of gratitude creates a victim mentality. This mindset blames family, historical maltreatment, or literally anything else, for any real or perceived deficiencies in a person’s current situation. The second reason why ungrateful people are not usually good or happy is that they are also angry, and angry people typically lash out at others.

Unfortunately, modern society has replaced gratitude with a growing sense of entitlement, the idea that you are owed that which you have not earned. Prager explains that the more you feel that life, or the state, or that others owe you, the angrier you will get, the more bad you will do, the more you will lash out, the less happy you will be. Prager says that we are developing bad people by making people feel entitled.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks cites research which has shown the multiple other effects of developing an attitude of gratitude. It improves physical health and immunity against disease. Grateful people are more likely to exercise and go for regular checkups. Thankfulness reduces toxic emotions such as resentment, frustration and regret and makes depression less likely. It helps people avoid overreacting to negative experiences by seeking revenge. It tends to make people sleep better. It enhances self- respect, making it less likely that you will envy others for their achievement or success. Grateful people tend to have better relationships. Saying thank you enhances friendships and elicits better performance from employees. It is also a major factor in strengthening resilience. Having an attitude of gratitude makes us more appreciative and entrusting; it gives us the strength to bounce back from painful experiences such as losing a job, going through illness or losing a loved one.

Albert Schweitzer said, “each of us has a cause to think with deep gratitude of those who lighted the flame within us.” So, we must express our thanks; to do so verbally and often, for our good health, for the companionship we cherish, for our parents and children, for our accomplishments, for everything we have learned from our mothers, fathers, teachers, friends, and students. And then we must turn this sense of gratitude into actions that benefit others. President John F. Kennedy said,” as we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

Ki Tavo Fiddler Parody

Moses instructs the people of Israel: when you enter the land that God is giving to as your eternal heritage, take a moment to appreciate this Miracle of Miracles. After you settle it and cultivate it, which is The Dream you’ve always dreamed, bring the first ripened fruits from your orchard to the holy Temple and declare your gratitude for all God has done for you. Be grateful Sunrise and Sunset.  This ceremony will become an annual Tradition.  You will feel like Now I Have Everything.

The Parashah also includes the laws of the tithes given to the Levites and the poor. The poor people who received this appreciate it, but daydream thinking  to themselves, If I Were a Rich Man. Next are instructions on how to proclaim the blessings and curses on Mount Grizzim and Mount Ebal. Moses reminds the people that they are God’s chosen people, and that they, in turn, have chosen God. It was as if a Matchmaker arranged the relationship.

The latter part Parashah consists of the Tochacha, the rebuke. After listing the blessings for which God will reward the people when they follow the laws of the Torah, Moses gives a long, harsh account of the bad things – illness, famine, poverty and exile – that will befall them if they abandon God’s commandments. At that point, Moses turns to God and says:” Do You Love Me?” To which God replies, ” Do I what?”.

Moses concludes by telling the people that only today, 40 years after their birth as a people, have been attained a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear. He tells them to celebrate with La Chaim, To Life. Remember to keep the Sabbath and say your Sabbath Prayer. Moses tells them: I will not be able to enter the land of Israel but will not be Far From the Home I Love.

We know that in the future the Israelites will survive a life of uncertainty, as precarious as a Fiddler on the Roof.