“If you don’t know where you‘ve come from, you don’t know where you‘re going.” – Maya Angelou
At this time of the year, many of us are thinking a lot about where we have been and imagine where we are going. We are smack in the middle of Elul, as evidenced by the bright full moon in the sky that was still visible this morning in the daylight. Two weeks from tonight we will gather to celebrate the new moon, the new Hebrew month, and most importantly Rosh HaShanah 5784. But as we have been reflecting together over these past few Shabbats, the month of Elul is a time for us to look back on the year that is about to conclude so that we can better envision and pursue goodness in the year that lies ahead.
The Torah portion this week also juxtaposes the journey of the past and with imaging a better future, as Moses instructs the Israelites in Ki Tavo; that when they come into the land that God has given them as a heritage, they should make offerings of the first fruits and leave a portion for those who are vulnerable and in need.
The offerings that the Israelites made, like the prayers we offer today, are meant to express our gratitude for the blessings we have received. We offer thanks for food and drink, for good health, joyous occasions. We ask God for wisdom, for healing, and for peace, among other blessings. For the Israelites, Moses’ instruction to offer the gift of their first fruits was not only in gratitude for arriving and entering safely into the Land of Israel, but in recognition of the arduous journey that they – both that generation and those who had come before; took to get there.
In making the offering, Moses tells the Israelites, they needed to say, “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 out to God who heard our plea, freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand, awesome powers, and brought us to the land of milk and honey.
Moses then tells the Israelites that they are to tithe, to leave a tenth of their produce for the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and the Levites who had no land of their own; who will eat and be satisfied. Not only do we have to say thanks for our blessings, Torah suggests, we need to use some of it to feed the hungry, and not just a morsel, but that they be satiated.
That is what it means to think like a people, a nation. Some Israelites would be blessed with bounty, others not. But the land certainly would provide enough for everyone. Some would share, some would benefit. The opportunity to be a free people in the land of Israel was also the opportunity to live in community with one another. That was not at all what previous generations were able to do, as their enslavement to Pharaoh in Egypt put everyone in a place where they would barely meet their own needs, let alone think about taking care of others. From that oppressive experience, we learned how important and meaningful it is to be together and take care of one another. It was all the more meaningful because of that fraught journey we had taken.
Throughout our people’s story, we have been asked to consider how the road we have travelled has led us not only to the place we are, but oriented us to where we are going. We did it while entering the land of Israel in biblical times, we do it each year when we sit at Pesach Seder and utter those same words of the wandering Aramean, and we do it each Elul as we prepare ourselves to enter into the new year. My prayer this Shabbat, for you, for me, for our congregation and our people, is that the fruit of this upcoming High Holy Day season will be sweet and plentiful, that the journeys we are about to take will be meaningful and prosperous, and that we can share in that prosperity together.
Rabbi Greg Weisman