Parashat Ki-Tavo begins with the command of bikkurim – the requirement to bring one’s first ripened fruits to the Beit Ha-mikdash and present them to a kohen. Upon presenting his fruits, the farmer would make a declaration – called “mikra bikkurim” – briefly reviewing the story of the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus, expressing gratitude to God for bringing the nation from such humble beginnings to the point where it can produce fruit in its own land. The text of mikra bikkurim is cited and explained in the Haggadah on the night of Pesach as we fulfill the mitzva of sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim – telling the story of the Exodus.
In this text, the farmer recalls how Benei Yisrael cried to God during the period of slavery, and “the Lord heard our voice, and He saw our torment, our labor and our distress” (26:7). Netziv finds it significant that the verse first speaks of God “hearing,” and then transitions to His “seeing.” God heard the people’s cries of anguish, Netziv explains, and He “saw” their pain which was not expressed in prayer. Specifically, He saw “our torment, our hard work and our distress.” The Haggadah interprets the term “onyeinu” (“our torment”) as referring to the fact that the Egyptians separated the men and women of Benei Yisrael, such that they could not cohabit. Netziv explains that God “saw” – but did not “hear” – this particular aspect of the people’s torment because they felt it inappropriate to pray for the ability to resume marital relations. Therefore, God “saw” this “torment,” but He did not “hear” it, because the people did not actually pray for the end of this crisis.
The second of these three terms – “amaleinu” (“our labor”) – is understood by the Haggadah as a reference to the Egyptians’ decree to murder all newborn boys among Benei Yisrael. Netziv suggests that tragically, Benei Yisrael despaired in the face of this cruel edict, and stopped praying for its annulment. And thus, God “saw” the people’s pain, but did not hear their prayers – because in despair, they had stopped praying.
Finally, God saw “lachatzeinu” (“our distress”), which the Haggadah interprets to mean “ha-dechak” (“pressure”). Netziv explains that this refers to the degrading physical conditions to which the Egyptians confined Benei Yisrael, as part of their effort to humiliate and dehumanize them. The Egyptians crowded Benei Yisrael in cramped quarters, like cattle, Netziv writes, and this is the meaning of “ha-dechak.” Netziv adds that Benei Yisrael did not pray for the end of this humiliation because, in Netziv’s words, “one who has grown in this manner” – as part of an inferior class – “does not understand the evil done to him, and he thinks that he is naturally of a weak and limited mind.” Benei Yisrael were accustomed to their state of degradation to the point where it did not trouble them. They just assumed that they were, in truth, inferior, and so they did not pray to be lifted from their lowly condition. Hence, God “saw” their degradation, but did not hear them cry about it.
Netziv’s comments should perhaps serve as a warning to us not to resign ourselves to a perceived state of “inferiority.” Just as Benei Yisrael mistakenly regarded their condition as a function of their natural limitations, we, too, sometimes grow accustomed to certain habits, and wrongly assume that this is our nature, that these represent our ingrained limits. We’ve all established certain patterns of behavior which we come to view as unchangeable, as part of our essence and our being. These patterns become so entrenched that we do not even consider the possibility that we can be something bigger and greater.
The period of Elul and the High Holidays is granted to us as an opportunity to challenge our perceived limits, to revisit our patterns of behavior to determine whether we’ve needlessly resigned ourselves to an imagined state of “inferiority.” We are to honestly ask ourselves whether our current state is the best we can be, or if perhaps we can grow higher. We must assess whether we, like Benei Yisrael in Egypt, have blindly accepted our condition of mediocrity, without realizing that we are capable of so much more. This time of year is designated for honest, unbiased introspection to identify ways in which we are capable of growing beyond the limits to which we have heretofore assumed we are confined.