Simchah, while often translated as “joy” is best described as “happiness.” Simchah is mentioned three times in our parsha (Deuteronomy 26:11, 27:7, and 28:47). This makes Ki Tavo the most simchah-laden passage in Devarim. In fact, there is more simchah in Ki Tavo than in Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus combined. It also has more simchah than Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers combined. This may seem impossible, considering this passage is wrought with:
- The commands of Bikkurim / Firstfruits
- The declaration of the tithe
- Instructions for when we cross the Jordan
- The blessings for Mt. Gerizim
- The curses for Mt. Eival
- The blessings for observance
- The consequences to failing to be observant
- And finally, the opening paragraphs of Moshe Rabbeinu’s final address to our people.
With this elusive happiness in the forefront of our mind, let’s look at this week’s text.
Parsha Ki Tavo begins with Bikkurim. Contrary to some popular thought seen on the Internet, Bikkurim has nothing to do with the sheaf offering that begins the Sefirat haOmer / the counting of the Omer. One cannot shoehorn the resurrection of Messiah, Bikkurim, and the Wave Sheaf offering (korban haOmer) into a single calendar event. Instead, Bikkurim is the mitzvah attached to Shavuot (where we present the first of the land’s produce to the Beis Hamikdash). This produce is not brought in a King Sooper’s or Publix paper bag; it’s brought in a basket. The basket is an important aspect to the command, but I will return to the significance of the basket in a bit. We bring the basket of produce to the priest who shall be in those days. If you remember two weeks ago, we talked about the nomenclature of “who shall be in those days.” This same terminology is used here in reference to the Cohen:
- in those days, refers to the idea that even if he is not like those who came before, we must listen to him
- who will be, is in reference to the priest, for he must connect with the people of his generation
When we bring our Bikkurim in a basket, we set it before Hashem and we we declare before the Priest:
“I profess this day to Hashem your God, that I came to the land Hashem promised to our fathers to give us.” Further, we say, “my father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became a great, mighty, and populous nation. The Egyptians dealt ill with us, afflicted us, and laid hard bondage on us. We cried to Hashem, the God of our fathers, and Hashem heard our voice, saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. Hashem brought us up from of Egypt with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, with great terribleness, with signs, and with wonders. He brought us into this place, and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, look. I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, O LORD, gave me.”
Once we say this declaration, the Torah states, “And you shall set it down before the LORD your God, and worship before Hashem your God. You shall be happy in all the good the LORD your God has given you: your house, you, the Levite, and the convert who is in your midst.” And here we have it. The elusive simchah. “You shall me happy.” This season of joy is not only the Matan haTorah, which is the Giving of the Torah, but it is in the realization through the mitzvah of Bikkurim, that Hashem is keeping the promises given to our fathers and to us in Torah.
Now to return to the basket. Why the basket? The basket is needed to carry the produce; without the basket, the produce doesn’t reach the Beis Hamikdash. Without the produce, the basket is simply it’s an empty basket. This reminds me of a story.
There was a Rabbi who would be visited fairly frequently by Elijah. One day in the midst of one of their discussions, the Rabbi stops mid-thought and asks who is going to be in the world to come. Elijah replies, “No one.”
This shocks the Rabbi into silence. As the Rabbi fights to untie his tongue, Elijah looks around and points toward a man walking with a definite purpose, and says, “Well, see that guy right there? He’s going to enter the World to come.”
The Rabbi rushes over to the man and asks, “May I speak with you?”
The man bluntly says, “No.” Now, this man isn’t dressed as a Jew. He doesn’t wear a kippah, there are no tzitziyot hanging from a tallis katan, and his face is freshly clean shaven. “Well, come back tomorrow.”
The next day, the Rabbi finds the man and asks him what he does.
The man replies, “I go to the jail and I sit with the people who are incarcerated there. I go to the town-hall meeting and taverns and I listen to the people. If there is a threat to the local Jewish people, I warn the Rabbis so they know for what to pray and know how to warn our people in order to help them protect themselves. I dress this way in order to blend in.”
As the Rabbi makes his way home, Elijah says, “Oh, those two fellows over there leaning against a street sign are going to be in the World to Come.”
Again, the Rabbi rushes over and asks them their story, to which they reply, “We’re jesters. We try to uplift the spirits of anyone who is down in the spirit. We try to make them laugh and have a bit of happiness to forget today’s sorrows. Joy and laughter heals a multitude of sadness.”
It’s interesting that this midrash has two jesters. Why two? Erma Bombeck once said, “There’s a fine line that separates between laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Robin Williams died tragically. John Belushi died tragically. Lenny Bruce and Chris Farley met tragic ends as well. However, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Frick and Frack didn’t. Why two? Because even jesters need someone to cheer them up.
The implication of the tale is that the rabbi isn’t going into the World to Come. Why? The Rabbi is a theoretician and doesn’t practice, but the others put the principles of Torah into practice. Without the firstfruits (without the Bikkurim), it’s just an empty basket and it will not be presented to Hashem at the Beis Hamikdash. In like manner, without the principles of Torah being put into practice, the Rabbi will not be presented to Hashem in the World to Come. The rabbi was an empty basket.