This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, presents a window into a very specific ritual as it was practiced in ancient Israel: the presentation of the "first fruits of the Land," the Bikkurim offering.
This section of Torah — Deuteronomy 26 — is perhaps best known for its inclusion in the Maggid (storytelling) section of the Passover seder. "My father was a wandering Aramean. He descended to Egypt and resided there in small numbers. He became a nation — great, powerful and numerous. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression."
The story of liberation and thanksgiving continues throughout the Haggadah.
This narrative allows us a vivid image of the Temple ritual — complete with the specific formula to say as one presents the first fruits to the priest. It also presents a challenge: Just who is responsible for performing this ritual, and who is entitled to use these words? This is a debate that has been with us since at least the time of the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.).
One of the questions asked is whether or not a convert to Judaism may say the formula, "I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us … . My father was a wandering Aramean … ." The argument presented in the Mishnah is that the statement is not factually true, and so the Jew by choice may not say it.
The Babylonian Talmud follows much the same reasoning. However, the Jerusalem Talmud records the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, who contends that a Jew by choice both presents the first fruits and recites the formula, citing a midrashic reading of Genesis that casts Abraham as the father of the whole world, not only of the Jewish people.
Maimonides (1135-1204) relies on the Jerusalem Talmud in his ruling regarding the Jew by choice bringing the first fruits and greatly expands this in his well-known letter to Obadiah, a convert from Islam.
There, his open embrace of those who choose Judaism is breathtaking: "Regarding [these specific] benedictions and prayers … . You should recite them all, just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! But just as every Israelite recited blessings, so you should do, whether in private or in public as the leader of the congregation … . Behold it has been made clear to you that you should say 'the land that the Lord swore to our fathers,' and that Abraham is your father and that of all the righteous who follow in his ways. This applies to all the benedictions and prayers. You should not alter anything."
There are two interesting side notes to this discussion. First, all of this recorded debate about whether a Jew by choice can recite the formula happens in the time since the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), after which Jews have not enacted this "first fruits" ritual. Therefore, this whole conversation is happening on the hypothetical level (though it is really about boundaries and inclusiveness).
Second, the conversation in its biblical setting and in its use in the Haggadah is intrinsically connected to how we are instructed to treat the stranger (ger) in our midst, arising out of our experience of being strangers in the land of Egypt.
As I read this first fruits ritual and the words written by Maimonides centuries ago, I am reminded of our own communities, and the gerim who make their home inside the tent of the people of Israel. Some are Jews by choice, others non-Jews living in Jewish families and communities.
As they bring their "first fruits" to the doorsteps of our temples and synagogues and schools, surely they, too, deserve to recite the same prayer of thanksgiving: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers."
Rabbi Craig H. Axler is a religious leader at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen.