Torah Lights on Ki Tavo

Dvar Torah from Efrat in the Judean Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin,

I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house… I have not transgressed any of your commandments; and I have not forgotten" . (Deuteronomy 26:13).

This week's Biblical portion is filled with crucial ritual and social commandments, the blessings and the curses which comprise our third Covenant with the Lord, and a concluding crescendo of promise that if we keep God's commandments, we will inherit our land and succeed in all of our undertakings.

Ki Tavo opens, however, in a rather unusual way. Throughout the Five Books of our Torah, God and Moses are the "speakers," as it were, whereas the Israelites must hearken and do, carry out and obey. Our portion uniquely begins with two speeches to be made by the householders themselves: the first is a quintessential thanksgiving – history recited by the individual bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple, and the second is a declaration made by the householder, when he has discharged his tithe obligations due to the Kohen – Levite ministers as well as to the poor of Israel.

Let us begin with the second of these speeches: "You shall declare before the Lord your God: 'I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house (and the fields; the percentage of the harvest which is "holy" unto God, which – although I may have planted, nurtured and reaped – nevertheless belongs not to me, but rather to those to whom God wants me to give gifts) and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in accordance with all Your commandments which You commanded me; I have not transgressed any of your commandments, and I have not forgotten'" (Deut 26:13).

Why does the householder conclude, "I have not forgotten"? If he has fulfilled all of his commitments, then clearly he has not forgotten the commandments of the tithes! Moreover, there is no parallel to such a declaration associated with any other group of commandments.

Rashi interprets, "I have not forgotten to make the proper blessings" on the various tithes (ad loc). A blessing before a ritual commandment certifies that this ritual is an act of service and devotion to God. In the performance of a social commandment, however, the act "for the sake of heaven" is only secondary; giving the tithe to the poor is salutary whatever my true intent may be. Moreover, the generally accepted halakhic rule is that "the lack of a blessing – even when performing a ritual act – does not vitiate or detract from the act itself". Hence it would be strange for the Bible to be so concerned about the utterance of the blessing.

I believe that the words "I have not forgotten" in this context carry a different meaning. You will remember that the previous Biblical portion, Ki Tetze, concludes with the command: "Remember what Amalek did to you on the road after you left Egypt; he chanced upon you on the road, attacking from behind all of the straggling, weaker people lingering in the back, those of you who were weak and weary; he did not fear God. Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you secure rest from all your enemies roundabout, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens; do not forget" (Deut 25:17-19).

Amalek is the arch-enemy of Israel; my revered teacher and mentor, Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik, would often cite his renowned grandfather, Rav Hayim of Brisk, who taught that Amalek is not to be seen as a specific nation. Amalek is the prototype of any nation in any generation and in any part of the world who – for no reason and without provocation attacks the weakest and most unprotected group; in particular, it singles out the people of Israel as the target of its destructive plans. Amalekism is the philosophy and raison d'être of Haman, Hitler, Stalin and Ahmadinejad. If the earth is to be home for free peoples created in the Image of God to live in security, then Amalekism and all that it stands for must be wiped off the face of the earth.

"Remember… Do not forget" is the Biblical message which concludes Ki Tetze. Ki Tavo opens with the farmer bringing his first fruits to the Temple and giving a first person account of Jewish history: "My father was a fugitive, almost destroyed, by the Aramean (his uncle, Laban). He went down to Egypt…where we were afflicted and given heavy labor….The Lord took us out of Egypt and brought us to this land, flowing with milk and honey…" (Deut 26:5-10). We recite and explicate these words every Passover Seder, the evening when we celebrate our freedom. Although it is now almost 4,000 years since these events took place, we still recite it in the first person, as it is Biblically written. The Egyptian experience is a seminal one for the Jews; we dare not forget it and we must re-live it every day of our lives: "You must love the stranger (the other), because you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deut. 10:19).

Jewish ritual turns our history into a contemporary, personal experience – which cannot and dare not be forgotten. Likewise, regarding the declaration after giving the tithes to the priests and the poor, the householder declares that we are now living in Israel, we are sharing with those who teach us morality, we are sharing with those who are weaker and poorer than us.

We remember Amalek – and we remember that we must destroy Amalekism. We have not forgotten!