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Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)

“Blessed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” (Deuteronomy 28:5)

Parashat Ki Tavo opens with the offering of bikkurim, the first fruits of the land and mandates the recitation of specific verses (the only time the Torah does so). It begins with a declaration: “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deut. 26:3) That makes sense, since farming is land-based. But it continues with a summary of Jewish history that begins with, “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” and ends with, “The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand…” (Deut. 26:5-8). Why is this included in a harvest thanksgiving ritual?

The answer lies in the power of stories. Humans respond instinctively to people confronted with a problem and looking for a solution, the universal grammar of a story. That’s why cultures throughout history have used stories not only to entertain, but also to teach. Jewish storytelling appears in the Talmud in 500 CE, flourishes with the Chassidim in the 17th Century, and reaches the Jewish masses with the emergence of secular Yiddish literature in the 19th Century.

Bringing bikkurim is a covenantal act and requires a public declaration of acceptance. The bikkurim ritual uses storytelling because it puts a personal face on abstract history. Repeating the story year after year, generation after generation transforms it from history to communal memory. The story form allows both the teller and the listener to “remember” the story as something personal, marking you as a “member of the tribe.” That shared memory is what makes us a people: you are not what you eat, you are what you remember.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom

David

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