What a disjointed time this is. Part of me still wants it to be summer so I can enjoy the longer, lazier days; part of me is excited for the faster pace of the school/shul/academic year.
The weather seems equally unsure. Last Shabbat was the hottest, most humid day of the year; Sunday was one of the nicest – especially fortunate because I had already planned on a long bike ride, which was very nice!
More importantly, the world seems pretty confused about how to confront challenges from Ebola to ISIS, the Ukraine, and the incidences of domestic violence and child abuse.
This confusion continues in our reading this morning which contains one of the most vital sections of Torah. We learn the laws of the first fruits – once the Israelites were settled in the land of Israel and the land had yielded produce, the Torah asks us to pause and bring the new fruits to the Beit Hamikdash, to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
A nice expression of gratitude after you had “made it!”
But, let’s stop and look at WHEN this was taking place. At what holiday were we to bring these first fruits?
Shavuot – the feast of weeks – in the spring. After counting seven weeks from Pesah, we arrive at the festival of the bikkurim, the first fruits.
And what does the Torah ask us to recite? “Arami Oved Avi – my father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to Adonai, the God of our fathers, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God brought us to this place and gave us this land, land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Adonai, have given me.” (DT 26:5-10)
Does this text sound familiar?
When do we recite it?
On Pesah, on Passover. It is the central text of the Hagaddah.
So here we are just before the fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot, reading the ceremony of the spring-time first fruits of Shavuot which forms the core of the Passover Hagaddah.
Did you follow all that?
Talk about confusion!
But let’s think beyond the timing and consider how strange this ritual is. After years of wandering through the wilderness to reach the Promised Land, the land of Israel, the land of milk and honey as the Torah states, we are finally to be planted in one place. No more wandering. We have made it.
You can imagine the great feeling of gratitude. It is not merely a daily or weekly or yearly statement of gratitude (though it was to be said each year), for the first time this ritual of bringing your first fruits to the Temple, there was a feeling of gratitude that must have built up over centuries.
It must have been an amazing feeling finally to be able to fulfill the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and know that you were the ones who made it. Your ancestors had been slaves in Egypt followed by ex-slaves who died in the wilderness. Your great-grandparents fought in the wars to establish the country during the time of the Judges, Prophets, and Kings Saul and David and now, under King Solomon you and your family had made it to the newly built Temple. You were not only surviving, but thriving.
And now, you could take time off to travel on an expedition to Jerusalem with your gifts and present them to the Kohanim, the spiritual leaders of the people. (It’s weird to think about how similar the experience of the Israelites was 3,000 years ago to the experience that modern Israelis had just sixty-six years ago…but I will leave that for another day.)
But there is something very strange about this ceremony. Everyone brought individual, personal gifts, their own fruit and we can imagine that each basket was different. (Don’t forget this was before pesticides and freezing our fruit as we do today – yes, apples for example, are usually picked and frozen for a year before they are sold to you – each fruit even looked different!) And the people looked different – coming from different parts of the country – perhaps with different backgrounds.
One would expect, similarly, that each individual participant would articulate gratitude differently. Each statement of thanksgiving, each prayer would be unique. That is in fact the norm for prayer in the Torah – prayer is from the heart and spontaneous. In fact, there is almost no standardized prayer in the Torah – the set words we are used to from our siddur, from our prayer book, come into Jewish history much later on.
But, here, we actually have a set formula – this is what you were supposed to say. Every Jew has to recite the SAME words, the same mini-summary of Jewish history up until that point.
Why was spontaneity put aside for regimentation?
To me, this was central to the experience. Each farmer came from a different place with his or her own basket of fruit, but recited the same words, told the same story – over and over again.
Think about the power of this ritual. Thousands of people were now united by these words and their shared narrative. There was certainly diversity, disunity, and disagreement – which occurs in all groups, but some of that was mitigated by this experience. The First Fruits recitation as it is called in the Mishnah was a powerful unifier that helped the people speak in one voice.
Think about the process of becoming a US citizen – one must take the oath of allegiance, everyone declaring their allegiance to the Constitution and the laws of this country.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Citizenship ceremony at TD Garden, Boston, MA
Again, everyone says the same words.
But the Jewish ceremony had a couple of additional layers that are instructive. First, the first fruits recitation is less of an oath of allegiance and more of a history lesson. Here is our story – we wandered to Egypt became slaves and suffered. God heard our suffering and took us to this land – flowing with milk and honey. The Jewish narrative contains suffering and we must always remember that. It helps us appreciate the world that much more when we are not suffering and it helps emphasize the importance of identifying with those who suffer.
After all, God only breaks into Jewish history after we cry out in pain. Just as God responds to suffering, so too, we are supposed to respond to suffering and alleviate the pain – moving the world closer to healing.
There was another layer to this feeling of unity. Our Etz Hayim Humash points out that everyone had to say these words in Hebrew on their own, while those who needed assistance, were given a prompter.
But, as you can imagine, those who needed help were embarrassed about their need for a prompter and over time, they stopped bringing their first fruit to this powerful yearly ceremony. So, the tradition was changed: everyone was required to use the prompter and once again, the core of this experience as a great unifier, a great equalizer was reinstated.
And so, for generations and generations, Jews have recited these words first in the Temple and later on, at the seder – a set text, a set liturgy. Today, if we open our siddur, our prayer book, we see that it is replete with retellings of our narrative. We once were slaves; now we are free. And these texts have become fixed – assisting us in the process of articulating the feelings that are in our hearts.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “One of the advantages of a set liturgy, in addition to uniting all Jews across barriers of time and space, is that it reminds us of themes we might not think of on our own.”
In this case, it reminds us that we are part of a larger narrative. We all have our own stories, our own journeys – as Chenda powerfully shared hers earlier today – but, in the Jewish tradition, we are reminded that we are also part of a larger narrative. We are part of a people whose narrative places us in a unique position to perform acts of kindness in this world.
This narrative is a great equalizer – bringing everyone together, reminding us that, although we are unique with our own journeys, we are also all equal. The Mishnah teaches that every human being is of infinite worth, of ultimate value. That means that not only are we all precious, but we are also the same – at the fundamental level, no one is worth more than anyone else.
In a world that highlights extreme voices and actions, a world that seems at times to celebrate confusion, how refreshing to be presented with another perspective – a text that brings us together, that helps us speak in one voice.
How powerful would it be to have a ceremony like this precede a gathering or even better, a debate. Can you imagine that everyone in Congress would come into the House of Representatives with their checks to pay their taxes, presenting these funds to the Speaker of the House while reciting a mini-version of American history so they could appreciate the larger story of our great country. I wonder if it might not lead to a more functional and civil congress.
For Jews, it must have been a transformative moment each year to come together with their fruit baskets, to feel the power of being in Jerusalem, as they recited these words that reverberate throughout history.
Let us, too, try to recapture some of that experience and come together more as one.
I know that I would appreciate that and I think all of us and the world could use it as well.