Some thoughts from the end of the line

By Rabbi Mark L. Shook

26 When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, 2 take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the Lord your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name 3 and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the land the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4 The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God. 5 Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. (Deuteronomy 26:1-5)

I hate waiting in line for anything. I am not patient in traffic jams nor am I stoic waiting for my group to be called for boarding a delayed flight to anywhere. People must be able to sense this impatience because, if they are in front of me, they find ways to take even longer to do what they are supposed to be doing. They are moving in slow motion just when a bit of speed would be most appreciated.

This weeks sidra is known as Ki-Tavo and is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, beginning with Chapter 26.  Moses instructs the Israelites on a ritual of thanksgiving they are to perform when they have settled in the Promised Land and have harvested crops for the first time. They are to present some of the fruits of that first harvest to the priest at the sanctuary and make a declaration of gratitude that includes a brief retelling of Israelite history.  No mention is made of precisely on what day or days this is supposed to occur. Our tradition identifies this ritual with the celebration of Shavuot, which takes place in May/June.

Many commentators focus on the power of that historical declaration. It is a clear recognition of God’s promise being fulfilled. If the ritual is performed annually, each generation will be connected to the Aramean who went into Egypt few in number and became a great nation. Each generation will know that it is part of a divine plan. 

All this is very well and good. But was such a ritual practiced? A student once asked me, “Were the lines long?” 

Until that moment, I had never thought about it. I said, “Why do you ask?” 

He said, “If 600,000 Israelites try to fulfill the commandment of presenting the first fruits to the priest ‘in office at that time,’ it will take a very long time, months even.” 

As sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, had I been alive at that time, I would be in line behind a nice, friendly person who, when only two places away from making his declaration and presenting his first fruits, would look at me with imploring eyes and say, “Could you please hold my place in line? I seem to have lost one of my pomegranates.”

Unless endless waiting in line was some kind of additional punishment for undetermined wickedness, I do not believe this ritual occurred as described. Perhaps a representative of the people, a king or prophet, carried a symbolic basket to the priest. There are a number of instances in the Book of Deuteronomy where the point of the text is to teach an unmistakable lesson, even if the required behavior seems cruel and harsh.  See, for example, the case of the rebellious son who is to be stoned to death “so all Israel will hear and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21:21)

The key to the lesson is what follows in this week’s sidra.  It is a discussion about tithes. First, the text reminds the Israelites how far they have come from their simple beginnings. Then it turns that historical experience into a ritual that can be repeated, so that succeeding generations will be filled with a sense of awe and gratitude. Finally, the obligation of tithes is stated. How could a nation not be motivated to tithe its produce, once it is reminded of where that bounty came from?

Perhaps our IRS form 1040 could contain a preamble, a brief recitation of our history as a nation, a reminder of the freedoms we enjoy as our birthright. As we calculate our tax obligation, we would recall how great it is that we are privileged to live in such a country, imperfect though it surely is.

Rabbi Mark L. Shook is rabbi emeritus at Congregation Temple Israel.