This Torah portion contains the extended blessings and curses which the Children of Israel will earn, depending on whether they keep or violate God’s covenant. It also details the ceremony of the first fruits which must be brought to the Temple, as well as the declaration over the second tithe.
Appreciating the Gifts of the Land
Moses teaches the people what they are supposed to do with the bounty which God will give them when they enter the land. First, they are to bring their first fruits before God to the Tabernacle. There, they will be placed in a basket and laid before the altar. The farmer must proclaim his recognition that his produce is a gift from the God who took the people out of Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. The farmer may then partake of these fruits in Jerusalem, celebrating with his family and others.
This declaration is the basis of the readings of the annual Passover seder, the traditional meal held on the first evening of the holiday. From these few verses, the sages expound the whole story of the Exodus from Egypt. One line in particular stands out. As the Israel Bible points out, the word vayareiu, which indicates the Egyptians treated the Israelites very badly, has the same letters as the Hebrew word for friendship, reiut. The Torah is thus subtly hinting that the Egyptians began their relationship with the Israelites through overtures of friendship. Only after time had passed did the anti-Semitism rear its head. This pattern has repeated itself throughout history, with nation after nation inviting the Jews in, then turning against them. Only the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland, can guarantee a safe haven for Jews for eternity.
At the end of the third year of each cycle, after tithing his produce, the farmer has an additional proclamation to make. He must declare that he has not neglected any of his tithes, and that he has distributed them in accordance with God’s command. He then asks for God’s continued blessings for himself and the entire nation.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the declaration over the first fruits begins with the history of the nation of Israel, starting with Jacob (the wandering Aramean, verse 5)?
A Commitment to the Covenant
Moses reminds the people that they have committed this day to accept God and follow in His ways, and in return, God has accepted them as His people, to protect and to treasure. Moses and the elders then command the people together to record the words of the covenant on stones once they cross the Jordan, and along with it, a stone altar. The stones and the altar are to be set up at Mount Ebal, and the altar is to be used for peace-offerings. Then Moses and the priests and Levites declare that on this day, they have become God’s people.
The Israel Bible notes that the reaffirmation of the covenant, started in this passage and continuing in the next, was to take place at the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal. The actual fulfilment of this ceremony took place in Joshua 8:30-35. Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal discovered an altar at the foot of Mount Ebal that he believes is the one commanded here. Once an atheist, Zertal now believes, “It is impossible to explore Israel’s origins without the Bible.”
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the people must record the words of the covenant once they have crossed the Jordan? Why are the tablets in the ark and the Torah scroll not enough?
The Blessing and the Curse
This extended passage contains the blessing which the people are promised for fulfilling God’s covenant, as well as the curse they will receive for violating it. Moses instructs the people, upon crossing the Jordan, to line up six tribes on Mount Gerizim, and six on Mount Ebal. The blessing are to be recited facing Mount Gerizim, and the curses facing Mount Ebal. After each, the people are to say Amen.
The Levites are to proclaim the blessings and the curses. First, they identify which violators will be cursed. These include the idolatrous, the dishonest and the incestuous. Then, the brief but bountiful blessing is recited, which includes fertility of both land and man, success in income, victory in war, and rain in its season.
The curses are more abundant and exceedingly frightening. Violation of the covenant will be met with the undoing of all blessings mentioned, and a host of other terrifying occurrences. These include madness and plague, the loss of property and family, slavery and suffering. The curses are in fact so detailed and so frightening, that it is traditional to recite them in an undertone when they are read in the synagogue each year.
Points to Ponder
Why do you think the curses are so much more detailed than the blessings?
Appreciating What God has Done for the People
Moses rounds out the portion by reminding the people of all God has done for them. He recounts the plagues and miracles in Egypt, the wonders which they have witnessed in the desert. He reminds the people that for forty years in the desert, their clothes and shoes have not worn out and they have not eaten bread nor drunk strong wine. God smote the kings who advanced towards them in the place where they now stand, and the land was awarded to the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half of Manasseh. Therefore, Moses tells the people, they should be sure to follow God’s commandments.
Points to Ponder
What do you think not eating bread or drinking strong wine have to do with knowing God?