SEPTEMBER 7, 2017 – In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites were instructed about the commandment of the ceremony of the Bikkurim, the First Fruits. The Bikkurim served as an opportunity for an owner to reaffirm his or her thanks and appreciation for having been brought to the Promised Land and for living in connection with the people of Israel.
The Jewish farmers, upon bringing their First Fruits, recited a passage relating their ancestors’ journey to and from Egypt:
“When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the first-fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us. My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our harsh labour and our distress. The Lord then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great fearsomeness and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first-fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” (Deut. 26:5-10)
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notices this text is not about nature, it is about history. This unnamed distant ancestor, a “wandering Aramean,” is the story of our ancestors. It is a narrative that tells me why I am here, and why the people I am part of is what it is and where it is. He argues there was nothing remotely like this in the ancient world, and there is nothing quite like it today.
The Land of Israel is the culmination of a long and harsh journey. The recitation of this passage, in addition to acknowledging Jewish historical continuity, reflected the spiritual journey from self-reliance to reliance on God.
It is interesting to notice this commandment of the Bikkurim was not applied immediately upon entering the land. According to the book of Joshua the conquest of the land of Israel took 14 years. Until the whole land had been settled and everybody had their piece of land nobody was obligated to bring their first fruits to the Temple. The ritual of the Bikkurim manifests our thankfulness for God’s grace and bounty, and if there was even one person who did not have his allotted parcel of land, the nation as a whole could not celebrate and enjoy fully.
Throughout the book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) Moses warns the Israelites never to forget the past. To disconnect from the chain of the generations that preceded us leads to identity loss and our sense of direction gets misguided, leading us astray from the path inteded for us. And not only are we commanded to remember, we are also commanded to pass that collective memory on to our children, to repeat our history, from generation to generation.
Rav Soloveitchik writes, “The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel (the Jewish People) is the Jew who lives as part of it wherever it is and is willing to give his life for it, feels its pain, rejoices with it, fights in its wars, groans at its defeats and celebrates its victories. The Jew who believes in Knesset Israel is a Jew who binds himself with inseverable bonds not only to the People of Israel of his own generation, but to the community of Israel throughout the ages. How so? Through the Torah, which embodies the spirit and the destiny of Israel from generation to generation unto eternity.”
To be a Jew is to be aware of the source of all our material blessings. To enjoy as a Jew is first to be sure all our brothers and sisters are having their basic necessities covered. To connect as a Jew is to nurture our bonds to our national and spiritual homeland and to build relationship with fellow Jews everywhere. To live as a Jew is to remember our past, engage our present through the guidance of the Torah and reaffirm our collective destiny as a nation to heal the difficulties of humanity and Creation and to make a place for the Divine Presence to dwell amongst us.
David Cohen-Henriquez is the rabbi of Temple Sinai in Marblehead.