Taking Our Place in the Story
Parashat Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
by Jared Eaton, Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT
The Torah often reads like an epic saga on a par with the Greek myths of Hercules, Perseus or Achilles. The Scriptures are filled with the exploits of larger than life heroes like the courageous Noah, the faithful Abraham, the valiant Joseph.
Sometimes reading the tales of these great and accomplished men makes me feel much less significant, less brave and less dedicated than I felt before. My story is much smaller. I have achieved far less. How can I take my place in such a star- studded line-up? How, in the face of such greatness, can I as a Jew compare?
That’s why this week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, is so refreshing. The protagonist of this week’s story is not a great prophet like Moses or a mighty warrior like Joshua. Our hero is a simple farmer, an unnamed future settler in the land of Israel.
The parasha begins by telling us about a first-fruits offering the people of Israel are to present to the Lord when they finally inhabit the land. On first reading, the mitzvahseems straightforward. This is simply a commandment to tithe, right?
This tithe, however, is different. There is an elaborate ritual involved with this offering. The Torah relates how the farmer is to collect the first fruits of his produce and bring them in a basket to the kohen. But he can’t just drop them off in the parking lot of the temple like a Goodwill donation! The farmer must present the offering to the kohen and then say . . .
I declare today to Adonai, your God, that I have entered the land Adonai swore to our fathers to give us. Deut. 26:3
After the offering is accepted, the farmer must then proclaim, “My father was a wandering Aramean . . .” and give a condensed version of the history of the Jewish people from the time of Jacob up until the present.
Why does he need to do any of this? The kohen must be sick to death of hearing it over and over again, and God already knows this story, probably far better than the farmer! Whose benefit is this story for?
It’s easy, in hindsight, to take the story of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham for granted. But imagine how this story must have felt to the great heroes who actually lived it, our illustrious patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Abraham received this magnificent promise from God…
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. Gen. 12:2–3
Abraham is expecting to have many children and to have a great land for them to dwell in, but at the end of his life he has only a single son and the only land he owns is a tiny burial plot.
Isaac must have believed that it was up to him to actualize God’s promise to his father. He spends his life digging wells to establish his family’s presence in the land, but by the end of his life his wells have been stopped up by the Philistines and have caused him nothing but grief. He is no more established in the land than his father was and he has only two children, hardly the great nation God promised.
Finally, Jacob seems to be the one through whom God will realize his promise. Jacob has twelve sons, a fine start to a great nation, but Jacob sees all of that promise slip through his fingers when Joseph is sold into Egypt. Eventually Jacob’s whole family ends up in Egypt and for hundreds of years they remain there.
God makes Israel into a great nation, but he does it apart from the land. The promise has been split up and the Jews will be in exile for a very long time. The book of Genesis ends with the promises unfulfilled.
The patriarchs, for all of their courage and faithfulness and spiritual strength, failed to realize in their own lifetimes the promises that God had made to them. They must have been so disappointed by the story of their lives.
Until the little farmer comes along. The protagonist of this week’s parasha is not a great prophet or a mighty warrior, but he is every bit as important to the Jewish story as Moses or Joshua.
That farmer is the fulfillment of Gods’ promise to Abraham. After countless years of exile and wandering and striving to return, this little farmer finally comes home to the land that the Lord swore to his fathers to give him.
And when he brings the first fruits of his first-ever harvest to the temple, he doesn’t just drop them off. He stands before the Lord and declares that he has entered the promised land and he is taking his place in the Jewish story alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Ina few weeks, the Torah reading cycle will come to its end and the scrolls will be rolled back to the beginning. But the story of the Jewish people doesn’t end there. It’s an ongoing tale of the love God has for his people and new heroes are entering this story every day.
Today, many Jews are still not living in the land God promised and delivered to our fathers. But God promised more than just land and children to Abraham. God told Abraham . . .
All peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
And all peoples have been blessed through Messiah Yeshua. When we partner with our Messiah in blessing the whole world, we too, take our place in the Jewish story and stand alongside our heroes.