As the great Torah commentator Rashi says, commenting on the biblical verses depicting receiving the Torah at Sinai,
all beginnings are difficult (Ex. 19:5).
The last portion, Ki Tetze, details the community they must create together, and now, after 40 years in the desert (not to mention 400 years of slavery) waiting for the fulfillment of God’s Promise – they’re almost there. What must have been on their minds? What might they have been imagining?
Ki Tavo el Ha’Aretz, When you enter the land…(Deut. 26:1)
…take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring in from your land that your God gives thee; and you will put it in a basket, and will go to the place where your God shall choose to cause God’s Name to dwell. Come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him:
`I acknowledge today to God, that I have come to the land which God swore to our ancestors to give us.’ The priest shall take the basket out of your hand, and set it down before God’s altar. You will speak and say before God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. The Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. We cried to God, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. God brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. God has brought us into this place, and have given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the land, which You, O God, have given me.’
You will set it down before God, and worship before God. You will rejoice in all the good which your God has given to you and to your house: you, and the Levite, and the stranger who lives in the midst of you.
Certainly, gratitude to God is understandable, but the first crop? The first experience of nourishment? We endure 40 years of desert before stepping foot in a land of milk and honey, and that first taste is denied to us? What lesson is to be learned from the juxtaposition of our first entry into the land and bikurim? And what precisely does this biblical formula mean?
At least three facets of this question warrant reflection:
1) To whom are we giving the gift? God? The priest actually receives the gift as God’s agent.2) The formula said when bringing the bikurim to the priest? “Arami Oved Avi,” recited at every Seder, yet the translations vary; either, “My father was a wandering Aramean” or “An Aramean tried to destroy my father” among other possibilities.3) Can we give this gift today? The priests, as we know them, don’t exist. There is no Jerusalem Temple, and even most Jews who live in Israel are not farmers – how can we give first fruits today?
Should we experience this as loss at all?
A thought: With every new beginning, our hearts are overfilled with joy and thanks, so caught up in the realization of dreams that words must fall short. Intense, holy moments defy language. So the bikkurim formula of “Arami Oved Avi” works because it is, perhaps, better to express prescribed words that surpass meaning than to limit the moment to defined words we understand.
Words have the power to reduce meaning. In this light, the power of the bikkurim formula is its very elusiveness. Life is like that, sometimes.Rashi was correct. Transitions are daunting. New, intense experiences, happy and sad, bring us to tears. We are grateful to be alive. We miss lost loved one.s We simply don’t have the words.
So we offer the best we can, exhaling and inhaling these elusive moments, knowing there will never be adequate expression.