Deuteronomy 26:1 to 29:8
This text contains two prayers stating that Israel’s success is rooted in the struggles of their ancestors and the efforts of God. Because this success is not due to their efforts alone, they must share this success with the needy.
This week’s parsha begins with the commandment that … “When you enter the land that the Eternal is giving you as a heritage, and you posses it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name.” When you give this fruit to the priest you say the following: “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deut. 26:1-3)
After the priest takes the basket you shall say these words which have become part of our Passover Sedar tradition. “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 Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm, and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore, I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me.” Then, this first fruit is to be shared “with the family of the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” (Deut. 26:5-12)
Following this commandment is another… In the third year, the year of the tithe, you should set aside a full tenth part of your yield for the needy. You shall declare before God the following: “I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to [the family of] the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as you commanded me. … 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.” (Deut. 26:12-15)
These two occurrences – the first harvest and the offering of the tithe – make these events, which are part of every agricultural cycle, into an important religious event. The participants are forced to stop and consider that, even though they enjoy much success now, their ancestors were oppressed and through their efforts and the grace of the Eternal they now enjoy success.
Then, this humbling lesson goes further… Because this success is not only due to their labors, but the efforts of those before them and the blessings of the Eternal, they should share their fortune with the needy who are not enjoying this success.
In the first of these commandments, the participants looks back at their ancestors, “the fugitive Aramean.” Commentators differ on who this referred to… Jacob, or maybe Abraham. Both went down to Egypt and were considered fugitives. But it really doesn’t matter. Both were oppressed…. And, the direct ancestors of those who were participating in these rituals were oppressed.
But, these commandments also apply to every Jew today. Our ancestors were also oppressed. Today, we can enjoy the freedom of our own homeland in Israel and the freedom as practiced in the United States. This freedom did not just happen. This freedom was the result of strong efforts by our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents… all in recent history…. And the grace of the Eternal.
But, a question arose…. Can all Jews say these blessings? What about converts or the sons and daughters of converts. Their fathers were not the “fugitive Aramean.”
A famous convert by the name of Obadiah wrote to Maimonides and asked “Should a convert recite prayers with the words ‘Our God and God of ancestors’ or ‘who commanded us’ or ‘who has chosen us’ or who has brought us out of Egypt.’” In truth, for him, these were false statements. Maimonides replied “You should recite all the prayers just as they are formulated in the liturgy. Change nothing! But, just as every born-Jew prays and recites benedictions, so you should do so whether in private or public as a leader of the congregation… The reason for this is that Abraham our father taught all humanity. Consequently, everyone who accepts Judaism until the end of all generations is a descendant of Abraham …. There is absolutely no difference whatsoever between us and between you.” (Jacob S. Minkin, The World of Moses Maimonides, pp. 375-6 – as quoted in Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 3, p.160-61)
For both the born-Jew and the convert, the power of these prayer/commandments is enormous. By remembering Abraham’s struggle, the suffering of the Israelites … and the challenges faced by their own parents, grandparents, or great grandparents, the worshippers makes the journey from suffering to success a personal event. The prayers become real for the born-Jew and the convert. They confirm the bond of the individual to the history and people of Israel. Through this ceremony every Jew becomes a proud participant in Judaism’s challenge and future. (Harvey J. Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times, vol. 3, p.161)
Photo of harvest courtesy of Jean-Marc Rosier from http://www.rosier.pro