Monday, August 23, 2010

When rote recitation is priceless / Parshat Ki Tavo

Ki Tavo opens with a description of a ceremony called Bikkurim (First Fruits), in which farmers brought the first fruits of their harvest to the priests in the Temple each year. The ceremony expresses gratitude for the fertility of the Land of Israel and the bounty of the harvest.
When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name. You shall go to the priest in charge at the time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deuteronomy 26:1-3)
Torah then prescribes words that the farmer is to recite, a declaration that concisely summarizes Jewish history and identity:
“My father was a fugitive 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 to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10)
I want to share three observations about this formula:
  1. First, it is one of only a few declarations that Torah requires to be recited verbatim and, as the Mishnah asserts, in Hebrew, not in the vernacular (Sotah 33a).
  2. Second, we learn in the Mishnah (Sotah 7:2-3) that originally some people were able to recite the formula independently, but others could not and required prompting. In time, it was observed that those requiring prompting were embarrassed and stopped bringing their bikkurim (first fruits). It was therefore instituted that everyone would be prompted so that no one should suffer embarrassment.
  3. Third, this formula is found in the Passover Haggadah, thus achieving a special place of prominence in the post-Temple world of Rabbinic Judaism, assuring that it would be preserved as more than a paragraph in a Torah reading once each year.
The Bikkurim (First Fruits) formula, and the requirement to recite it yearly, delivers a powerful message about the importance of teaching everyone in the Jewish community the basics of Jewish history and identity. Every farmer – whether educated or not, where wealthy or needy, whether committed to God, Torah and Israel or not – recited the same formula, articulating a basic understanding of Jewish history and identity. This short formula opens the door to countless questions about Jewish history, theology, practice, and ethics. Would that we could establish a minimum baseline of Jewish learning today for all Jews so they could appreciate, and benefit from, their heritage! There are many creative learning programs in the Jewish community for people with extensive and impressive backgrounds in Hebrew and Jewish studies. We need new and innovative programs that share the wisdom, ethics, and joy of Judaism with all who wish to absorb it, and especially those who have no background.

The use of a prompter for everyone, in order to avoid embarrassing anyone, is yet another lesson to us of the importance of inclusion. So often Jews walk into a synagogue and find themselves in “alien space” because they are unfamiliar with Hebrew, the order of prayers, the customs associated with prayer, and the tunes being used. Do we, as a community, insure that there is someone to sit with them and guide them through the service and accompany them to whatever meal or social gathering follows the service? Or do we permit them to sit alone and suffer embarrassment? Just like those who stopped bringing their bikkurim (first fruits), those who experience the synagogue as “alien space” will not return to our sanctuaries.

Our Rabbis were wise to insert the Bikkurim (First Fruits) recitation into our Passover Haggadah where we would encounter it each year, not in the context of a Torah reading but precisely in the context of a ritual that is all about questioning, learning, and discussion Jewish identity and the meaning of living Jewishly. Perhaps it was their way of sending message into the future.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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