Saturday, October 25, 2014 Heshvan 1, 5775

A Season for Settling and Growing

September 3, 2009 By:
Rabbi Danielle Stillman
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KI TAVO, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

My family and I traveled a lot this summer. We took road trips and flew on airplanes, visited loved ones and experienced beautiful parts of the country. Traveling takes me out of my box just enough to shake me up and help me see the world in new ways.

But it is also exhausting -- all those different beds every night; adjusting, just briefly, to other people's routines. Now, at the end of the summer, I'm happy to be home.

This week's portion opens with a ritual that the Israelites performed once they were settled in the land. They would place the first fruits of the harvest in a basket and bring them before the priest, who would place the basket on the altar before God. At that point, the Israelites would recite the passage beginning with Armi ovad avi, often translated as "My father was a wandering Aramean."

We read this same phrase every Passover from the Haggadah, as we retell the tale of how Jacob went down to Egypt, in time brought his family there, and then how the Jewish people became enslaved. We remember the origins of this great slavery to recall how we were freed.

In the basket ritual described in this week's portion, the passage Armi ovad avi is recited for a different purpose. The Israelites said it to remember that they were not always settled farmers living in one place. Their father was a wandering Aramean. In the midst of offering their harvest -- the very sign that they had settled in one place long enough to grow food -- they needed to recall that they were descended from nomadic stock.

Most of Genesis is dedicated to describing the wanderings of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is through those wanderings that they began to find God. So here, in Deuteronomy, we honor the holy activity of wandering by recalling it.

Yet the ritual of offering the first fruits is meant to celebrate being settled and making a home to mark the end of that wandering. In the passage recited, the Hebrew word ovad, "wandering," is sometimes translated as "fugitive."

Wandering, then, is not always positive. It can mean a number of things: perish, be destroyed, vanish, be lost, go astray. The Aramean father could have strayed in the sense of physical wandering, or he could have strayed from the law.

The dictionary teaches us about the connection among going astray, straying and loss. To have something go astray is possibly to lose it, have it vanish, perish or even be destroyed. To wander from place to place is to lose one's direction, and perhaps one's identity. The Israelites simultaneously remember the holy, God-driven wanderings of their forefathers, and they give thanks that they themselves are settled enough to offer first fruits. They are, in a sense, found.

This year, we read this portion midway through the month of Elul, the time that we begin to cease our wanderings and turn toward home. We have gone astray, we have been lost; parts of our best intentions have vanished. We begin to direct our fugitive selves toward a confession and a possible homecoming.

As the Israelites sought a promised land where they could settle and cultivate their land in order to offer the first fruits to God, so do we dream of settling into the richest part of ourselves. And may we appreciate the opportunity we now have to make something grow.

Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.

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