By Rabbi Nathan Martin
Parshat Ki Tavo
Declarations matter. In ancient times when we gathered our harvest and brought our first fruits to the Temple — as described in this week’s parshah Ki Tavo — we had to recite a very specific declaration that began with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).
The rest of the declaration encapsulates our historical liberation story: “We became great and numerous in Egypt, we were oppressed, the Lord freed us with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and God brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
The words of this might sound familiar. This declaration is embedded in our Passover haggadah and we study it to better understand the story of our people’s exodus from Egypt. By reciting and studying these words, we allow ourselves to inhabit our story of liberation from the inside.
However, as I re-encounter this liberation summary during this Torah reading cycle, I am aware at the fragile moment in which many in America, including American Jews, find ourselves in. We have seen an upsurge of intolerance, a rise in anti-Semitism, a decline of civil dialogue and a consistent economic fragility for many.
The words of the first fruits declaration speak to me differently.
“My father was a wandering Aramean.” My ancestors were refugees. We know the story of economic dislocation, the desire of a better life. We know what it is like to have gates closed and walls erected. We need to remember not only on Passover but all year-round the challenges that refugees face today. We need to support their desire to create a better life for themselves in this country. And we need to pay attention to the many places in the world where people are living under grueling conditions and offer what support we can elsewhere.
“We became a prosperous nation.” Many Jews in American were able to benefit from its openness and opportunity to become well off. We do live in a country of opportunity, and we are grateful for this. But we live in a time of economic vulnerability, an increasing gap between the well off and the poor. We need to remain conscious of the inequities amid the plenty.
“God saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.” In our story of liberation, our cries were heard, and we were redeemed. Will we today be able to hear other cries? Will we, in an era of government withdrawal, be able to dedicate our time and resources to alleviating the poverty of our neighbors? Can we contribute our first fruits today to the places of need?
“God brought us to a good land … and I now bring the fruits of the soil to you.” We, too, are blessed to live in a good land, a land that should have the capacity to sustain those who live here. But we must remember that, like the fruits of the soil, we are dependent on ensuring that our soil and our environment remains healthy and sustainable for our children and their children. How can we remember that the land we are living on is not ours but we are simply its caretakers?
This commandment of first fruits and the declaration that the Israelite recited is rooted in having us acknowledge our humility, our vulnerability, our spirit of generosity and our interconnectedness to the larger organic whole. These same sentiments can be useful guidelines for us today as well.
In his commentary on this passage, the Chasidic master Reb Noah Berezovsky, known as the Netivot Shalom, says that the commandment of first fruits is so essential because we are showing that we are willing to take something precious that we earned with the sweat of our brow and dedicate it to a sacred cause bigger than ourselves.
This is not only how we love God with the fullness of ourselves but our actions can also create a dwelling place for the divine on earth, because God is drawn to dwell with those who give of their heart.
As we move ever closer to the new year, it seems that our challenge, more than ever, is to reflect on what we are able to give in the coming year.
What is the harvest we have gathered that we are able to share with our neighbors and with those in need, that will indeed increase the likelihood of making our country a sacred space, that will host the divine rather than an increasingly fractured and divided society that will repel the divine presence?
Rabbi Nathan Martin serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Media. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.