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

Reishit: Beginning

And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it. That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there. (Deut. 26:1-2)

The taking of the first fruits and dedicating them to God is understood. The beginning of any venture has uniqueness, a special quality. The Torah mandates that the first fruits be brought to Jerusalem where they will serve as an impetus for religious expression and experience, where thanks to God may be expressed. The term1 used for the first fruits is Reishit, which is similar to the word Bereishit meaning "in the beginning" (the opening word of the Book of Genesis).

Rashi commenting on that very first verse in the Torah tells us that the Torah itself is Reishit as are the people of Israel.2 All of these items have uniqueness to them and are therefore linked. There is, however, something else that is called Reishit and this application is somewhat disturbing.

And when he looked on Amalek, he took up his discourse, and said, "Amalek was the first (reshit) of the nations, but his latter end shall be that of everlasting perdition." (Numbers 24:20)

How can Amalek -- the very antithesis of Torah and Israel -- deserve the same appellation?

 

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THE AMALEK LINK

While the essence of the connection requires additional analysis, the use of the term Reishit for Amalek sheds light on the sequence of teachings and provides the link from the end of last week's Torah portion and the beginning of this week's. This observation that Amalek, too, is called Reishit links two sections of the Torah which otherwise seem thematically independent.

Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt. How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it. (Deut. 25:17-19)

And it shall be, when you come in to the land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it. That you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which you shall bring of your land that the Lord your God gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and shall go to the place which the Lord your God shall choose to place his name there. (Deut. 26:1-2)

The juxtaposition of teachings leads us to conclude that there must be a deeper relationship between the first fruits and Amalek the "first nation."

Rashi in his comments to Parshat Ki Tetzei gives three explanations to the insidiousness of Amalek:

 

  1. The characteristic of the nation of Amalek is its worldview that God does not exist and life is all coincidence.

     

     

  2. Amalek pollutes the world, and is the source of unnatural illegitimate pleasure.

     

     

  3. After the splitting of the sea awed the nations, only Amalek was not afraid. The people of Israel were compared to a boiling cauldron, and Amalek jumped in to cool them off.

 

Rabbi Yehuda said: "It is written, Amalek is the first of the nations; but his latter end shall be that he perish for ever. Was, then, Amalek the first of the nations? Were there not many tribes, nations, and peoples in the world before Amalek came? But the meaning is that Amalek was the first nation who feared not to proclaim war against Israel, as it says, and he feared not God; whilst the other nations were filled with fear and trembling before Israel at the time of the Exodus, as it says: The peoples heard and were afraid; trembling took hold of the inhabitants of Pelesheth. In fact, apart from Amalek there was no nation that was not awestruck before the mighty works of the Holy One, blessed be He. Therefore his latter end shall be that he perish for ever." (Zohar, Exodus 65a)

 

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AMALEK VS. JETHRO

Amalek and Jethro stand in stark contrast. Jethro too heard of the amazing happenings and of the terrible punishment decreed for Amalek, and in response made his way to the Hebrew encampment. The Midrash explains the juxtaposition of the end of Parshat Bishalach and the beginning of Parshat Jethro:

For he said, Because the Lord has sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Exodus 17:16)

When Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moshe' father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel his people, and that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. (Exodus 18:1)

Amalek and Jethro were of the advisers of Pharaoh; but when Jethro beheld that God had wiped out Amalek both from this world and the next, he felt remorse and repented, for first it says, For I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven and then ... said he: "The only thing for me to do is to join the God of Israel." (Midrash Rabbah - Exodus 27:6)

Significantly, the portion of Jethro contains the story of the Revelation ? the giving of the Torah. The first fruits were brought to Jerusalem on the holiday of Shavuot ? the day of the giving of the Torah.

While the Torah and Israel represent one type of Reishit, Amalek represents the antithesis, a completely different type of beginning. The Torah and Israel are a manifestation of God's will - holiness on earth. Amalek represents the opposite, the rejection of God, a world view of coincidence, a pact with impurity and a desire to attack all that is holy.

Rashi (25:18) cites a tradition taught in the Midrash Tanchuma that when the people of Amalek won in battle they immediately severed the male sexual organ from their victims and threw them heavenward. The very idea of a circumcision that represented a covenant with God was foreign to them. The idea of holiness and purity grated against them and caused this atrocious response.

 

* * *

 

PHYSICAL AND SPIRITUAL BATTLE

The battle against Amalek is both a physical and spiritual struggle. The Bikkurim ? the first fruits - have a quality to them which allow the defeat of Amalakian philosophy. The individual who sees his produce as the work of God, and gives proper thanks rejects the worldview of coincidence.

Immediately following the first fruit declaration the Torah continues:

This day the Lord your God has commanded you to do these statutes and judgments; you shall therefore keep and do them with all your heart, and with all your soul. (Deut 26:16)

Rashi (26:16) explains the significance of the term "this day" in this context: "Every day should be new for you, as if on that day you were commanded [given the Torah].

The ability of man to see himself in close proximity to God is the antidote to Amalek. If a person were able to visualize the revelation taking place each and every day, adherence to the word of God would be infinitely easier.3

Amalek, despite a well-earned reputation, was not the first instigator against God. That distinction belongs to the original serpent in the Garden of Eden.4 The serpent too tried to lead man toward an existence without God. The delusion which he tried to infect man with was the thought that man can be like God, and need not heed the word of God. The serpent and Amalek are one. Each leads a rebellion against God, and is responsible for the spread of evil and the rejection of God.

In the aftermath of man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, man will now have to work by the sweat of his brow. Now despite the initial victory by the serpent and the perceived distance from God, man is called upon to find God through his labor.

Later on in history there lived two brothers -- Esau was a man of the field, while Jacob remained in the tents. Their realms seemed separate: the secular and the Divine. Jacob remained engaged in spiritual pursuits while his brother Esav was involved in the mundane. However, in this post-Eden world it was decreed that Jacob must become a man of the field as well. His task was to merge the spiritual and the secular. To take the mundane and elevate it into a spiritual context.

The descendent of Esau, Amalek, continues his was against the spiritual. While the descendent of Jacob, Israel, attempts to merge the two worlds.

 

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FIRST FRUITS

Now we may appreciate the commandment of Bikkurim ? the first fruits.

When the children of Israel entered the land, so close to fulfilling their destiny, the most crucial of questions emerged: Would they follow the legacy of the serpent, of Amalek? Would they see the fruits of their labor independent of God? Or would they bring the fruits to Jerusalem part and parcel of their religious experience?

An understanding of this issue will shed light on another issue articulated in this week's Torah portion. Later on, we read about the terrible calamities which will befall the people should they deviate from the word of God. The specific explanation offered by the Torah is:

Because you served not the Lord your God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things (Deut. 28:47)

The terms for "abundance" and "all" are rov and kol respectively. These same terms are found in a fascinating discussion between Jacob and Esau.

After becoming a man of the field Jacob returns to Israel. He meets up with his estranged brother. Jacob offers gifts to Esau ? who declines saying that he has rov, an abundance. Jacob for his part insists that he has everything, kol.

And Esau said, "I have enough, my brother; keep what you have to yourself." And Jacob said, "No, I beg you, if now I have found grace in your sight, then receive my present from my hand; for therefore I have seen your face, as though I had seen the face of God, and you were pleased with me. Take, I beg you, my blessing that is brought to you; because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything." And he urged him, and he took it. (Genesis 33:9-11)

Rashi points out the difference in speech. While Jacob says that he has everything that he can imagine, Esau says merely that he has enough ? indicating that he is well aware that there is more and he would like to possess it one day.

The Torah is telling us that when we fail to appreciate the gifts which God gives us, and instead we become fixated on acquiring more and more, we become like Esau. Jacob focuses on what he has and is satisfied. Esau focuses on what he does not have and is never satisfied. This is how Esau produces Amalek who represents misanthropy. When Israel becomes like Amalek then its stay in the Land of Israel will come to an end.

 

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JOY AND APPRECIATION

Now we understand the significance of being satisfied with the Bikkurim the sanctification of the first fruits. Even though this is still the beginning of the season and hopefully more produce will follow, even the first fruits should produce joy in the heart of the Jew, when he realizes that all this bounty comes from God.

As we saw, the offering of first fruits took place on the holiday of Shavuot, the day of the giving of the Torah. For our part we need to view each day as if the Torah is new, fresh, given that day. This type of consciousness is the opposite of the worldview of the serpent and Amalek.

This was the trait of our forefathers. The Talmud connects the trait of kol with the taste of another world:

Our Rabbis taught: "There were three to whom the Holy One, blessed be He, gave a foretaste of the future world while they were still in this world, to wit, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham [we know] because it is written of him, [The Lord blessed Abraham] in all, Isaac, because it is written, [And I ate] of all; Jacob, because it is written, [For I have] all. There were three over whom the evil inclination had no dominion, to wit Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, [as we know] because it is written in connection with them, in all, of all, all. (Baba Bathra 17a)

Because Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob saw themselves as privileged, as possessing all good, they had defeated the evil inclination, that wicked serpent had no power over them. They were able to taste the future world.

As the children of Israel prepared for their entrance into Land of Israel, they were given a strategy which will allow the stay to be enduring and meaningful. God provided the tools needed to create a society with a God consciousness -- a society which will have tents of study and fields of labor.

But no schism could exist between the two. God must be found in the fields, marketplaces and study-halls. Every day revelation would be experienced. Holiness would permeate the streets and fields. This is what eradication of Amalek is all about. This is the goal of the commandment of the first fruits.


NOTES

  1. Rav Zadok in Rissisay Layala section 31 says that Amalek is the source for all evil manifested in this world. (return to text)

     

Published: September 1, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) Doreen, September 17, 2011 3:18 PM

Very enlightening

Just a light reading of verses like these gives very superficial understanding to their meaning. Thank you Rabbi Kahn for your article. I am just now beginning to understand the real meaning of the commandment regarding the 'First Fruits'. May we all strive for the day when our society will have 'tents of study and fields of labor'. Great article!!

(2) Peggy Pryor, September 18, 2001 12:00 AM

Great stuff

Thank you for this insight... It is encouragement to me this day. With all the death and destruction we have faced in the past week, I feel like I can once again face each day as if on that day the Torah had been given to me a new.

blessings and Shalom
Peggy Pryor

(1) Nicholas Jacobs, September 8, 2001 12:00 AM

This is very helpful

I have begun co-leading a torah study in Fairbanks AK and sometimes it is hard to find materials sometimes. Having sites like this one helps out a great deal. Thank you very much.
Sincerely,
Nicholas Jacobs

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