When the people bring the basket of first fruits to the priest we read (translation by Richard Elliot Friedman): "And the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of YHWH, your God. And you shall answer and say in front of YHWH, your God: My father was a perishing Aramean, so he went down to Egypt and resided there with few persons and became a big, powerful and numerous nation there. And the Egyptians were bad to us and degraded us and imposed hard work on us. And we cried out to YHWH ... And YHWH brought us out from Egypt ... to this place and gave us this land ... and now, here, I've brought the first of the fruit of the land that you've given me, YHWH." (26:4 - 10)
Though this passage is familiar to me not only from the Torah, but also from its traditional inclusion in the Passover Haggadah, something new struck me in the Hebrew and in Friedman's translation. For right before the person begins reciting the formulaic "my father was ..." the text states "and you shall answer and say in front of YHWH, your God." Often this is translated simply as "and you shall say...", but the Hebrew clearly uses the verb a-n-h, which means to answer. But, to what question is the person bringing the offering is responding? And is the person responding to the priest, to whom s/he has given the basket, or to God, before whom s/he stands
As is often the case, the text leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Yet, I believe at the heart of this text are the concepts of duality, tension and contradiction. The way the verse is written there are at least two possible readings both of which can be valid, but which are also conflicting (as happens so often within discussions of Jewish texts).
The primary tension, or duality, that I see in the passage is between past, present and future. This would seem to be more than a duality, since there are three ideas in tension with each other. However, at the heart of the tension there really is a duality between the present and that which is not-the-present. Both past and future are
unrealities. Neither of them truly exists in any given moment. The only reality is
what is before us in the present. Yet, as human beings, we cannot deny the role that the past and the future play (or, that we allow them to play) in our lives.
The ritual about which we read in this parashah takes place in an imagined future when the people are free and in the Promised Land. Yet, it also recalls the collective past when we were slaves and, later, when we were freed from slavery. So what does lesson can this ritual offer us in the present? Perhaps the answer to this question can be found a few verses later in the parashah where we read: "This day YHWH, your God commands you to do these laws and judgments. And you shall be watchful and do them with all your heart and soul. You have proclaimed YHWH today to be God to you, and to go in God's ways and to observe God's laws and
God's commandments and God's judgments and to listen to God's voice. And YHWH proclaimed you today to be a treasured people to God..." (26:16 - 18).
present, watchful and mindful of what is before us. This means not just using what we traditionally think of as our mind or our intellect, but using our hearts and our souls – our deeper, truer selves - which contain within the emotionally, intellectual and spiritual all united as one. By becoming aware of this we cannot help but proclaim in this moment that we are part of the Divine and the Divine is part of us. We cannot help but walk down the path of God - the path of righteousness and holiness. We cannot help but listen to the voice of God in the sound of our own
voices, in the voices of all those around us and in the sounds of the world in which we live. For all of these are manifestations of God's voice. All of these are manifestations of the oneness of the universe that we call God.
By acknowledging God's presence in this moment we proclaim to ourselves and to the world that each of us is God's treasure. If we do not do these things it does not mean that we are doomed to spend our lives NOT as God's treasure. Rather, it simply means that in this moment we have missed the opportunity experience this reality. But in the next moment and in the moment after that the opportunity will arise for us yet again to see ourselves in this light and to feel in heart, soul and mind what this means.
In this way the ritual as described in the parashah and the verses that follow it embody the idea that we must live in the present to truly experience God, even though we cannot help but bring our past with us and be mindful of the opportunities that lie in the future - which will someday be the present.
But this still does not tell us to what or to whom the person bringing the first fruits was responding when s/he recited these formulaic verses. What was the question they answered and who was the questioner?
I see the questioner as God, for that is before whom we all stand, metaphorically speaking, for God’s presence is always within us. In this scenario the priest is seen merely as the intermediary. So even if the priest asked the question it must still be viewed as a question from God. But here we are playing a game of spiritual "Jeopardy," for we have discovered the answer and now we must discover the question.
What is the question that God asked the person bringing his/her first fruits from Promised Land - the fruits of the future-that-has- now-become-the-present? What is the question that is then answered by recalling the oppression of our past, the miracles that made us free and then concludes with a reminder of what we must do in the present in order to live in a godly way?
The clock is ticking. The theme song plays in our mind. We try and try to find the answer. The key changes. Our minds are stuck. Will we win or lose? Will we discover the answer? Then suddenly, just before the buzzer sounds, the answer comes to us as if it were always there. And the question is simply ... "Why?"
Why are you here at this very moment bringing me the fruits of Promise? Why are you standing here before Me at this moment? Why did I hear your cry, rescue you from slavery and bring you to Me in My land? Why....?
Why? This is the question that God asked our ancestors with the basket of first fruits in their hands. This is the question that God asks us each and every moment - and which we must ask one another and ourselves. Why are we here? Why is this moment unfolding the way it is? Why? This is the constant question, but one which has even greater urgency as we prepare to enter the time of reflection, repentance and return known as the Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe.
To find the answer we need only to look into the eyes of God. We do this by looking into the eyes of the person beside us, whether loved one, adversary or stranger. We do this by looking at those living in the lap of luxury and those who are suffering in poverty, hunger and disease. We do this by looking into the mirror. We do this by looking at the trees, the grass, the ocean, the mountains and the world around us. We look at all of these things and we find the answer to the simple, yet eternal, question.
Why? Because God wants us to be here and to be present in this moment to celebrate, to make the world a better place, to sense God's presence and to share it with others.
One of my favorite biblical verses is from the Psalm 118, "This is the day [read: this is the moment] that God has made, let us rejoice and celebrate it!" We must do our best to keep this verse and God's presence before us in each moment. We must do all we can in the moment to help others to recognize the joy in the moment. If they are too caught up in their work, then we must help them to stop and be present. If they are suffering, then we must do what we can to ease their suffering so they too can experience that joy. By paying attention and celebrating each moment we can find within us the answer to the eternal question that God has been asking of us and will continue to ask all of us in every moment: why?”