Blessing First Fruits in a Time of Plague

Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Max Chaiken

Already, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than half a million lives. I shudder to think of how that number may continue to rise.

I also can’t help but learn powerful lessons from this portion that feel immediately relevant to our ever-evolving “new normal.” I hope that they remain so.

The sidra opens in chapter 26 with the ritual declarations for Israelites to make when harvesting the first fruits of their soil and have honored their tithing obligations. The declaration for the first fruits might be familiar from your reading of the Passover Haggadah:

“My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil, which You, Eternal One, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)

This connects our gratitude for the harvest to our story of slavery in Egypt. Freedom enables us to work our own land, and, in partnership with the Divine, produce food to sustain our lives. As we acknowledge the bounty and abundance of the harvesting of first fruits, we express our gratitude and remember our story of deliverance.

The Torah’s declaration about proper tithing is less known, but it invokes a powerful message about economic justice:

“When you have set aside in full the tenth part of your yield – in the third year, the year of the tithe—and have given it to the [family of the] Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow that they may eat their fill in your settlements, you shall declare before the Eternal your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the [family of the] Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow, just as You commanded me….” (Deut. 26:12-13)
This can be understood as a kind of tax. In addition to setting aside the corners of their fields, farmers are responsible for tithing to ensure a critical safety net for the community’s most vulnerable.

As I consider these ritual statements in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, two important lessons stand out.

  1. When you’re grateful for something, declare it out loud. In recalling the Israelites’ slavery and hardship, we make the “first fruits” even sweeter by acknowledging whatever abundance we may have. Your “first fruits” can be the results of your efforts at trying new things, or more literally, you can hold gratitude for the food in your pantry.

    In a time with so many reasons to feel anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, we can create moments of stability and celebration by declaring our gratitude and telling our stories.
  2. We are all responsible for the most vulnerable among us. The Israelites were commanded specifically to support the Levites, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow: the most vulnerable populations in their society. As the Israelites made this pledge, they spoke directly to the Divine, affirming they have done right by God and by these communities. This ritual declaration teaches us, to paraphrase the late Jewish comic book author Stan Lee, that with great wealth comes great responsibility.

    Those of us with any amount of abundance are responsible for the well-being of the vulnerable in our society. Can those of us who enjoy our wealth declare to the Almighty that we have helped provide for those in need? As the pandemic puts at risk many people who have never before faced homelessness and hunger, this ethical imperative becomes even more urgent.

Parashat Ki Tavo is perhaps most famous for the blessings and curses in chapter 28, which reminds us that these blessings will be ours if we faithfully observe all of God’s commandments:

“Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country. Blessed shall be your issue from the womb, your produce from the soil, and your offspring from the cattle, your calving from the herd and your lambing from the flock. Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Blessed shall you be in your comings and blessed shall you be in your goings.” (Deut. 28:3-6)

This beautiful blessing of abundance, prosperity, and health is followed by a warning about the curses that will befall us if we do not observe God’s commandments. When chanted in full, this part of the portion is often spoken quickly and quietly because the curses, including “consumption” and “extraordinary plagues, malignant and chronic diseases,” are quite frightening (Deut. 28:22, Deut. 28:59).

I do not believe, as Torah describes, that God directly acts in our world, or that the COVID-19 plague is some kind of Divine message. But I do believe that in the face of disease, suffering, and evil, God weeps with us; and when we aspire to holiness regardless of our circumstance, God celebrates with us. And the more we keep these ideals in mind, the better we can build a world worthy of blessing.

May we be blessed in the city and blessed in the country.

May we be blessed in our comings and blessed in our goings.

May we be blessed in the red states and blessed in the blue states.

May we be blessed in science and blessed in business.

May we be blessed with wisdom and blessed with truth.

May we be blessed and worthy of blessing.

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