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Rabbi Wagensberg on Parshas Ki Tavo


21 Elul, 5778; September 1, 2018

"Thank You, Thank You"

The first subject matter in this week's parsha is the mitzva of Bikurim (bringing the first fruits to the Beis Hamikdash as an offering of thanks). Rashi (Parshas Ki Savo, 26:3; citing Sifri, 299) says that the declaration which the Jew says when bringing his Bikurim is so that, "He is not ungrateful." This wording of Rashi is somewhat problematic. Why does he say, "Not to be ungrateful" in the negative, when he could have as easily said that the declaration was so that, "He is grateful" in the positive?

Moreover, the Zohar (Raya M'hemna, Parshas Mishpatim, pg. 120b), the Mishna (Bikurim, chap. 2, "Hateruma Vihabikkurim", Mishna 2), and the Rambam (Hilchos Bikurim, 3:10) say that when a Jew brings Bikurim, he must confess. This too is difficult. What sin is the person confessing when he brings his first fruits? Additionally, a quick glance at the text of the Jew's Bikurim declaration will show that there is no form of confession in any of the words that he says. Where is the confession that the Zohar, Mishna, and Rambam were talking about?

Another Mishna (Bikurim, chap. 3, "Keitzad Mifrishim", Mishna 1) gives an example of what a Jew does when separating his first fruits. It says, "A man goes down into his field and sees a "fig" (for example) that blossomed, he ties a rubber band around it for a sign, and says, 'Behold, this is Bikurim.'"

The Ohalei Shem (Rabbi Shem Klingberg, from Poland. A kabbalist from the Ziditchov and Komarna Chassidic dynasties, b. 1868, d. 1943. He perished in the Holocaust) asks why the Chachmei HaMishna (wise Sages of the Mishna) picked on "figs" when giving an example about this specific case concerning Bikurim? Bikurim must be brought from the seven species that Eretz Yisrael is praised with (Mishna Bikurim, chap. 1, "Yesh Meviim", Mishna 3). There are six other examples that the Chachmei HaMishna could have chosen. The other six species are: wheat, barley, grapes, pomegranates, olives, and dates (Parshas Eikev, 8:8). Why doesn't the Mishna use any of the other species as an example?

The Ohalei Shem says that the reason why the Mishna picked on figs is because the mitzva of Bikurim serves as a tikkun (fixing) of the Eitz Hada'as (Tree of Knowledge) which was a fig tree (according to Rebbi Nechemia, Berachos, chap. 6, "Keitzad Mevarchin", pg. 40a). Rebbi Nechemia's proof that the Eitz Hada'as was a fig tree is that Adam and Chava sewed fig leaves to cover their nakedness after eating from the tree. Only after eating from the tree did they realized that they were naked. Therefore, they specifically used fig leaves to cover their embarrassment because they wanted to begin repairing the damage that was done by using the very same tree that brought about such devastation to begin with.

Perhaps the Ohalei Shem's teaching also answers what sin a Jew confesses when he brings Bikurim. The Jew is confessing on his participation of the Eitz Hada'as. According to the Arizal, all our souls were wrapped up in the grand soul of Adam Harishon. When the sin presented itself to Adam, his head was filled with all our opinions. Most of us said to Adam, "Yes, let's do it!" Even those who did not agree with eating from the tree, did not protest strong enough. Therefore, they also had to take the heat. So, every Jew must confess his contribution in the sin of the Eitz Hada'as.

How does the mitzva of Bikurim atone for the sin of the Eitz Hada'as? Perhaps we could suggest an answer based on the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizensk who says that the real sin of the Eitz Hada'as was that as soon as Hashem asked Adam, "Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?" (Parshas Bereishis, 3:11), Adam responded by pointing the accusing finger at his wife and said, "She made me do it" (Parshas Bereishis, 3:12).

Rashi on the spot cites the Gemara (Avoda Zara, chap. 1, "Lifnei Eideyhen", pg. 5b) that says that by blaming his wife, Adam demonstrated a "lack of gratitude." There were so many things for Adam to be thankful for with his wife, Chava. Yet, the only thing Adam could say about her was that she instigated him to sin. Yes, Chava made a mistake. But why was that Adam's only focus? Why did Adam only criticize her? It was because he did not appreciate her sufficiently. Adam lacked gratitude.

Therefore, the mitzva of Bikurim serves as a tikkun of the Eitz Hada'as because the essence of Bikurim is Hakaras Hatov (gratitude). When we bring Bikurim, we are flexing our spiritual muscles of Hakaras Hatov which repairs the damage of kafui tov (lack of gratitude) that we were guilty of by the Eitz Hada'as.

Speaking of gratitude, let us open a new window. The Shvilei Pinchas says that when we thank Hashem, we should not only thank Hashem for the good things in life, but, we should also thank Hashem for the difficult aspects of life. There are benefits to the challenging chapters of our lives. The pain we experience atones for sin which brings us closer to Hashem (Rabbenu Yona on Rif, Berachos, pg. 54a; Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh, Parshas Titzaveh, 28:1). This closeness can lead a person to such happiness that he even thanks and blesses Hashem for the pain that brought him close.

By thanking Hashem even for the suffering that we endure, we fulfil the Mishna (Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 54a) which says that a person is obligated to bless Hashem for bad just like one blesses Hashem for good (Parshas Vaeschanan, 6:5, "Uvichal Meodecha", with every "mida" (aspect) that Hashem dishes out to us, thank Him. See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 222:3). This fits in with Rebbi Akiva's instruction to regularly say, "Whatever the Merciful One does is for the good" (Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 60b).

Therefore, when a person brings a Korban Todah (a thanksgiving offering), one should not only thank Hashem for his recovery, but, also thank Hashem for the illness to begin with. Not only should a person appreciate arriving safely from a trip via ocean, desert, or air, but, he should even thank Hashem for the shipwreck or turbulence (See Berachos, chap. 9, "Haroeh", pg. 54b, Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav). The frightening experiences bring us to teshuva, atonement, and closeness with God (See Mishna and Gemara Berachos, chap. 5, "Ein Omdin", Pg. 33b; Tehillim, 50:23; Rashi ibid, Vayikra Rabba, Parshas Yzav, 9:2, Kesav Sofer Parshas Tzav).

The Shvilei Pinchas cites the Avodas Yisrael (Parshas Re'eh) who quotes the Maggid of Mezritch who says that the word "todah" (thank you) is related to a case where at first, we were very upset at the circumstances, but, afterwards realized that they were for the best. An example of this is found in the Gemara (Niddah, chap. 3, "Hamapeles Chaticha", pg. 31a, Rav Yosef expounding on Yeshaya 12:1, "I thank You Hashem because You were angry with me"). We will convert the Talmud's story into a more modern one.

Once upon a time, two business men had to catch a flight to Cleveland for a very important business meeting. They were running late. As the limousine pulled up to the airport, the two men rushed out of the black vehicle and raced to their plane. After clearing security, they darted to their gate. Suddenly, one of the two men tripped, twisted his ankle, fell to the ground, and crushed his knee. The shouts of pain could be heard throughout the terminal.

There was no way he was going to make his flight. The broken man began to curse Hashem while he watched the other business man give his boarding pass to the lady at the counter. "How could You do this to me" he screamed at God. "Millions of dollars depended on this meeting! Now I'm going to suffer such a financial loss! I hate You!"

In the meantime, the AES (Airport Emergency Services) began attending to the injured man. Eventually, the paramedics arrived. How painful it was to be pulled onto the gurney. How embarrassing it was to be wheeled through the airport and lifted onto the ambulance with everybody looking on and even staring.

Finally, they arrived at the hospital. While a team of orthopedics worked on their patient, the business man watched the big screen that was playing down the hall. There was a flash news report. A plane crash left no survivors. As more information came in, the name of the airline was mentioned. The man thought to himself that that was the same airline he was supposed to take. Then, the news reporter announced the flight number. It was the same flight that he was supposed to catch!

In disbelief, the man began thanking Hashem for saving his life. How embarrassed he felt about the way he carried on when he took the fall. About such a case, Rebbi Eliezer said, "Even the one to whom a miracle has been performed, may not know that a miracle was just done for him" (Niddah ibid). This is derived from the verse which says, "Blessed is Hashem Who alone does wonderous things" (Tehillim, 72:18). Sometimes, only Hashem knows about the miracles that He performs on our behalf. Sometimes, at the time the miracle is happening, we are clueless as to what is going on around us.

About such cases, the word "todah" is very appropriate because the word "todah" does not just mean "thank you," but, it also carries with it a connotation which means "admit." The words, "Ani Modeh Lecha" can translate as, "I thank you," or it can translate as, "I agree with you," or "I admit to you."

When a person brings a "Korban Todah," he is not just supposed to thank Hashem for the healing, rather, he is supposed to admit that he benefitted from the illness. With 20/20 hindsight vision, one can begin to appreciate how the challenging circumstances in his life led him to become what he is today. Only then is he supposed to thank Hashem for the illness, and then thank Hashem for the recovery as well.

One of the benefits of painful experiences is that they tend to lead us to teshuva. This is where the Zohar, Mishna, and Rambam found the confession within the Jew's Bikurim declaration. It's all wrapped up in the word "todah." The Jew is saying three things simultaneously with that word. 1) I admit that the bad was good. 2) I even thank You for the bad, because, 3) it led me to repent which consists of vidui (confession).

The "bad" which the Jew thanks Hashem for when he brings his first fruits is for the difficult process that he had to go through in bringing those fruits out of the ground. First, he had to plow, which is exhausting and back-breaking work. Then, he had to sow. Then, he had to wait for rain patiently. Then, he had to pull the thorns and thistles out of the ground so that they would not stunt the growth of the fruits. Then, he had to harvest.

These difficulties were the curse that Hashem cursed Adam with after he sinned with the Eitz Hada'as (Parshas Bereishis, 3:17-18). By the time the Jew brings his Bikurim to the Beis Hamikdash, he has band-aids all over his hands. He suffers from back pain and sciatica. When the Jew thanks Hashem - not only for the fruits - but, also for all the pain that he had to endure, he demonstrates his acceptance of the curse. The acceptance of the curse allows the curse to atone for the sin of the Eits Hada'as. This is another way of understanding how the mitzvah of Bikurim mends the sin of the Eitz Hada'as.

We can see the acceptance of his suffering from the text of the Jew's Bikurim declaration. The Jew mentions how Lavan tried to murder Ya'akov Avinu. He talks about how Ya'akov had to descend into Egypt where they suffered from hard work. He says that the Egyptians afflicted and oppressed us terribly. He tells about the great miracles Hashem performed, redeeming them from Egypt. He speaks about how Hashem brought us to Eretz Yisrael, gave us land, and fruits grew (Parshas Ki Savo, 26:5-10).

Mentioning the miracles in Egypt and being brought into the Land and being given fruits are understandable. After all, the Jew wants to thank Hashem. However, why does he mention being chased by gangsters (Lavan), descending into exile, and being beaten as slaves? What does that have to do with his gratitude?

The Shvilei Pinchas says that this teaches us that the Jew is supposed to be thankful even for the exile and the suffering which it brings. The Alshich (Parshas Shemos) says that the oppressive Egyptian bondage cleansed us from the spiritual impurities that had been injected into mankind by the serpent in Gan Eden, making us capable of receiving the Torah. We did benefit from the servitude.

The Sfas Emes (Pesach) says that we eat Maror on Pesach because we want to thank Hashem for the bitter experience that He put us through. How many people thank Hashem for the slavery? We are so focused on thanking Hashem for Yetziyas Mitzrayim, how many of us thank Hashem for Shibud Mitzrayim?

This explains why our Sages described Hakaras Hatov in the negative, "Don't be ungrateful," and not in the positive, "Be grateful." The negative expression teaches us to thank Hashem even for the negative aspects of our lives.

Perhaps we could add that this is why we also find the curses in this week's parsha (28:15-69). The curses are lumped together with Bikurim to teach us that we should even thank Hashem for the curses because everything that God does is for the best.

Practically speaking, we could do some exercises to help strengthen ourselves in this area. First, let's try to say the Korban Todah every day. It's a short paragraph. When saying it, think that we are not just thanking Hashem for the good, but, we thank Hashem for the bad as well.

Second, when we recite the "Hagomel" blessing, keep in mind that we thank Hashem, not just for the salvation, but, for the frightening and painful danger we had to go through.

Third, when saying the "Modim" blessing in the Shmoneh Esrei, keep in mind that we admit that past pain was beneficial, then, think about how we thank Hashem even for that pain, and then, think about how we thank Hashem for the good also.

Fourth, I found a prayer that we could say regularly. It goes like this, "Thank You King of kings, also for the things that I do not have. Thank You for the difficulties that I experience from time to time. Thank You for the sadness that I experience occasionally, because, everything is for my good. And even though I do not always see that this is for my good, deep in my heart I know that all that happens to me comes from You, and it is the best thing for me, and it was done to me with incredible Divine intervention that was specifically designed for me. Something that only the King of all kings could do."

So, may we all be blessed with the strength to be thankful - not only for the sweet - but even for the bitter aspects of life, by admitting that they too are for the best, and thus may we be encouraged to do a complete teshuva by doing vidui on our sins - including our participation of the Eitz Hada'as, and subsequently deserve the building of the final Beis Hamikdash in which we will offer the Korban Todah and Bikurim once again.

Good Shabbos, Warmest wishes, Aba Wagensberg

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