Thursday, August 26, 2021

When History Touches You

The casual reader is immediately struck by the pageantry of the offering of first fruits, bikkurim, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah offers a vivid description of the bikkurim procession. It tells of how individual farmers would gather in local groups, and

“an ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them ... when they drew close to Jerusalem ... the governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to them, and ... all the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’... When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When they got to the Temple Court, the Levites would sing” (Mishnah Bikkurim Chapter 3). 

All of this pomp and ceremony highlights how different bikkurim are from other agricultural offerings. Bringing an offering of first fruits or firstborn animals in gratitude to God was common in the ancient world, and is found in the story of Kayin and Hevel at the very beginning of the Torah. But bikkurim are different because they tie the first fruits to the Exodus from Egypt. Here, the farmer speaks to those present and says: “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” 

The farmer then tells the history of how their ancestors wandered, eventually becoming slaves in Egypt; and “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and ... He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now, behold, I have brought the bikkurim of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.”  

Even though bikkurim reflect the farmer’s personal achievement, everyone else joins them in the celebration, including political leaders, Levites, and the shopkeepers in Jerusalem. This is because bikkurim are also a national celebration, and commemorate the Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people. 

It is fascinating to contrast bikkurim with the rituals of Pesach. Both tell the story of the Exodus, but in very different ways. Pesach takes place on the anniversary of leaving Egypt, and its ritual foods—the Pesach sacrifice, the Matzah and Maror, all relate directly to the experience of liberation. To sit at the Seder is to reach out and touch history, and imagine oneself as part of the Exodus; each person at the Seder sees themselves as if they were the slaves leaving Egypt that very night.

With bikkurim, the process goes in the opposite direction, reversing the narrative of the Pesach Seder. The farmer takes an individual achievement, the arrival of the new crop, and sees within it the story of the Exodus. Bikkurim are a reminder that history is very much a part of current events; as the farmer celebrates their personal good fortune, they make a point of recognizing that their prosperity is rooted in the miracles of the past. Unlike the Seder, the history lesson of bikkurim begins with the farmer, who reflects on their first fruits, and recognizes that history has touched their daily life. 

In the past century, Jewish history has been retold in two forums. One is at a commemoration or a pilgrimage, such as on Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut, or at Auschwitz, Atlit (the prison camp near Haifa) or Ellis Island. The very dates and places are imbued with significance; they stand ready and waiting for their story to be retold. But history is also retold at personal celebrations—at a wedding when the grandfather gets up to speak, or at a Bat Mitzvah when the grandmother addresses her granddaughter. These speeches return to great historical moments, and repeat bittersweet stories of crisis, tragedy, courage and survival. They conclude, always, with the sense that now, finally, there is a celebration! 

These are bikkurim moments, when we recognize how history touches their daily lives. And this is actually a more profound retelling of the past, because it demonstrates how history impacts the life of the individual.  

Ultimately, the declaration of bikkurim is included in the Haggadah and read at the Pesach Seder. David Henschke and others have wondered why this passage was chosen for the Seder because it doesn't fit well. The bikkurim declaration actually had to be edited for the Haggadah, because it made no sense in exile to read the words “He has brought us to this place and has given us this land.” It would have made more sense to use Deuteronomy 6:21-24, which tells the Exodus story exclusively, as the foundation of the Haggadah.  

I would argue that the declaration of bikkurim was chosen for the Haggadah precisely because it speaks from the perspective of the individual, and reminds the reader that the redemption will bear fruit for everyone. During the bitter years of the diaspora, individual circumstances were shaped by exile; daily life was more a reminder of Tisha B’av than Pesach. In the Haggadah, the section of bikkurim offers hope to the brokenhearted, and reminds them to wait for Elijah to bring them to Jerusalem; then, they too will bring bikkurim.

Contemporary Jews can tell the story of bikkurim as their own; they know the wanderings of their grandparents, and recognize how lucky they are now. One moving example of this is a story told by Daniel Gordis, which he heard from an elderly woman he met. He writes:

“She was nineteen during the war ... her father realized that they might not survive Europe, even where they were hiding, and told her he was sending her out ... She'd never given much thought to Palestine, but she had a sister who’d already moved here. … she boarded her ship, and sailed for Palestine ... At the shore, of course, they were stopped by the British ... [and she was] taken by the British to Atlit, the prison camp still preserved not far from today's Zichron Yaakov. ... Here she was, scarcely out of her teens, alone except for a sister, in a country that barely existed. 

About sixty years later, she told us, she told her children that for her eightieth birthday, she wanted them all to get in a few cars, and she would lead them, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren around Jerusalem showing them the places that had been important to her over the past decades. Places she'd lived, where she'd worked, where significant memories had been etched. They agreed on a date and time, and a son-in-law knocked at her door to take her to the car. But there was no car. Instead, there was a bus. And instead of her immediate family, it was children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and many more; literally dozens of people filling a bus. She’d come alone, she told us in a voice quivering with emotion, and now, six decades later, the family she'd created could barely fit into a bus.”

This bus trip is a true bikkurim moment. After all of the wandering and persecution, one branch plucked from the fire of destruction has become a multitude. But stories like this are everywhere; and the next time you drink a bottle of Israeli wine, celebrate that bikkurim moment, and recognize what a miracle that wine, people, and their homeland truly are.  

No comments: