Parshas Ki Savo: Lessons from Bikkurim

This week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Savo, begins with the mitzvah of Bikkurim, the first fruits of the shivas ha’minim (blessed produce species of Eretz Yisrael; Devarim 8:8) that the landowner brings, in a celebratory procession, up to the Beis HaMikdash, preferably from Shavuos through Succos (Devarim 26:1-11).  

The first fruits were given to the kohanim who were on duty at that time. They divided the produce among themselves to be eaten within the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem. The kohen took the fruit and returned the expensive containers (brought by the rich people) to the owners. In the case of a reed or grass basket (brought by the poor people), both the first fruits and the basket were given to the kohanim.  After sleeping in Jerusalem overnight, the farmer was free to return home.

This beautiful mitzvah, which is an expression of hakaras ha’tov to Hashem for the Holy Land and its bounty, is so fundamental and important that the Medrash teaches that for Bikkurim, the whole world was created! (Medrash Bereishis Rabbah 1:4). 

When the farmer offered the fruits as a gift to the kohen, he recited a special passage, known as the Mikreh Bikkurim (Devarim 26:5-10).  Much of the passage is familiar to us, as it makes up a significant portion of the Maggid section of the Haggadah shel Pesach.  

The passage begins with the history of Yaakov Avinu working for Lavan, who wanted to destroy him, then Yaakov and his family descending to Egypt, it recalls the Egyptian enslavement, the subsequent redemption, and our arrival to the Land flowing with milk and honey.  

In the passage, the landowner says: וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה, and the Egyptians mistreated us, and they afflicted us, and they placed upon us hard work (26:6).  How can we explain the words, וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, and what do they come to teach us?  

As with any study of lashon ha’kodesh, identifying the shoresh (root) of the word often teaches us much about the message of the Torah.  

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski z’l explains, “While the concept of the term וַיָּרֵעוּ is indeed ‘mistreated,’ the literal translation of the word is ‘made bad’ (from the shoresh רע).  Furthermore, if the meaning of the verse is that the Egyptians did bad to us, the correct Hebrew expression is וירעו לנו, they did bad to us, rather than וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ, lit., they made us bad.  The more accurate translation of this verse, therefore, is ‘the Egyptians made us bad,’ i.e., they corrupted us.  

“Interestingly, another possible translation of וַיָּרֵעוּ is derived from the word ‘רע, friend’, in which case, the phrase would read, ‘they befriended us.’ 

“The two meanings of the word וַיָּרֵעוּ may thus coincide.  The Egyptians corrupted us both with their cruelty, which caused us to lose our sensitivity for one another, and on the other hand, by befriending us.  We became degenerate by associating with them.

“It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Psychology has elucidated a defense mechanism of ‘identification with the aggressor,’ wherein the victim adopts characteristics of his abuser.  One would think that a child who was abused by a parent would resolve that he would never harm his children the way he was harmed.  Research has shown this not to be true.  Sadly, parents who suffered abuse in their childhood may repeat the pattern with their own children.  

וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ, lit., they made us bad.  Alshich (R. Moshe Alshich, b.1508 in the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, d. 1593, Tzfas, buried in the Old Cemetery, Tzfas) explains that the abuse suffered by the Israelites in Egypt caused them to be insensitive to one another” (Twerski on Chumash, p.416-417).  

This is the first interpretation of וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ, they made us bad.  The mistreatment and abuse one suffers, tragically, may be perpetuated by the victim himself.  In this case, the Egyptian enslavement was so brutal, so ongoing, and so painful, that the slaves themselves became cruel and insensitive to the plight and suffering of their brethren.

As for the second interpretation of וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ, based on the root word for friend, how do we explain that the Egyptians ‘befriended us’?

Continues R’ Dr. Twerski, “The second source of corruption is perhaps even more dangerous than the first.  We are profoundly influenced by our friends and our environment.  So much so, that the Rambam writes that a person who lives in a corrupt community must relocate, and if one cannot find a community that is wholesome and pure, one should live in the wilderness rather than be subject to a corrupt environment!

“In the decades since the horrors of the Holocaust, statistics show that Judaism has lost more than six million souls due to intermarriage and assimilation.  Assimilation among ‘friends’ is a greater threat to Jewish survival than the open brutality of our enemies.

“The holiness and purity of Jewish morals, and way of life, has been eroded and corrupted by the permissiveness and immorality that prevails in western civilization.  King David bewails this state of being and cries, ‘וַיִּתְעָרְבוּ בַגּוֹיִם וַיִּלְמְדוּ מַעֲשֵׂיהֶםthey mingled with the nations and learned their ways’ (Tehillim 106:35).  That historical tragedy is unfortunately with us today as well.

“We must be on guard in both realms, not to allow our ethics and morals to be destroyed by either interpretation of וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ, neither their abuse, nor their overtures of friendship,” (Twerski on Chumash, p.417) so that we may ensure the wholesomeness and integrity, kindness, holiness and purity of Am Yisrael.  

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום, 


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