The Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, begins with a directive: when the Israelites conquer Canaan and settle down, the Israelite farmers will take the first fruits to the priests at the place God chooses to establish God’s name (presumably, Jerusalem). The farmer will recite a prescribed prayer (the earliest prescribed prayer in the Torah); the prayer synopsizes the history of the Israelite people at that time.
The prayer begins, “My father was a fugitive Aramean” (JPS translation; Robert Alter translates the Hebrew as “My father was an Aramean about to perish”), and we are familiar with the wording from the Haggadah. The Haggadah translates the Hebrew as, “An Aramean would have destroyed my father . . . .” Much has been written about the Haggadah’s interpretation, and I am not going to discuss the Haggadah’s interpretation, except to say the Masoretes, the ancient scholars who punctuated the Torah and vocalized the Torah, vocalized the prayer, “My father was a fugitive Aramean . . . .”
The prayer is remarkable. The farmers thank God and thank the land. The last sentence of the prayer is, “Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God, have given me.” The prayer is remarkable substantively, and the prayer is remarkable when juxtaposed to the other highlights of the Torah portion.
Moses tells the Israelites that when they cross the Jordan, six tribes will stand on Mount Gerizim and the other six tribes will stand on Mount Ebal. The tribes on Mount Ebal will shout the curses prescribed by the Torah, and the tribes on Mount Gerizim will shout the blessings prescribed by the Torah. The Torah portion additionally contains the second recitation of the Tochechah, the list of calamities that will befall the Israelites if they don’t keep the commandments.
The Torah portion is full of blessings and curses, but the blessing of the first fruits is the farmers’ way of saying thanks to God that the land was bountiful.