Thursday, August 22, 2002
If it's Thursday, it must be time to study Torah - specifically, the parshah of the week. Second week in a row - I'm on a roll.
This week’s parshah opens with a description of the bikkurim, the offering of first fruits. In the days of the Temple, all the Jews of the Land would ascend to Jerusalem and bring the first fruits of their farms and orchards as an offering to G-d. During the joyous period from Shavuot to Sukkot – at the time of year in which we find ourselves right now – the people bringing the bikkurim offering would recite a few of the verses of this parshah beginning with verse 5: “Arami oved avi – A wandering Aramean was my father.
This phrase should be familiar to us from another place. The passage forms the central part of the Passover haggadah (where the phrase is translated as "An Aramean sought to destroy my father" - a reference to Laban and his dealings with Jacob). In the haggadah, these verses are expounded upon at length in a commentary that, to me, has often seemed to lack a clear thrust or purpose. Moreover, it is unclear why these verses were chosen, given that they are not about the Exodus or the Passover sacrifice but about the offering of first fruits, which occurs on Shavuot.
Rav Riskin has an explanation for the choice, which I will quote at length since links to the piece I'm quoting from seem to keep going cold.
Whereas the usual textual rendition at the conclusion of Maggid reads,''In every generation, it is incumbent upon the individual to see himself (lirot atzmo) as if he came out of Egypt,'' Maimonides' haggadah texts reads, “In every generation, it is incumbent upon the individual to show himself (leharot atzmo, play-act) as if he himself is now coming out of Egyptian bondage'' (Laws of Hametz and Matzah 7,6). Apparently for Maimonides history must not only be remembered but it must be internalized, a process which can only take place by every individual attempting to experience in his life-time now what his ancestors experienced then. By placing ourselves within the pages of the Bible, the pages of the Bible become an inextricable part of our beings; transference in deed becomes transference indeed!
Maimonides' reading has a further change that I believe is fraught with crucial implications. In our haggadot, the paragraph''In every generation it is incumbent upon the individual…'' concludes,''It was not our ancestors alone that the Holy One blessed be He redeemed, but He also redeemed us along with them, as it is written,''And He took us out with them in order to bring us and give us the land which He swore to our fathers' (Deuteronomy 6, 23).'' Maimonides reading adds:''And concerning this does the Holy One Blessed be He command in the Torah, ‘And you shall remember that you were a slave'; that is to say, as if you yourself were a slave, and you have come out into freedom and you have been redeemed.'' (Maimonides, ibid). In other words, for the seder night it is not sufficient that you re-experience the exodus from Egypt; you must also re-experience the goal of redemption, the entry into the Land of Israel.
Now we understand why the Mishna (Pesachim 10) insists that we explicate the Biblical paragraph Arami Oved Avi on the Seder night, a portion found in the Book of Deuteronomy (26), rather than the more to-be-expected verses from the Book of Exodus, the initial source for Egyptian servitude and freedom; the reason is evidently because Arami Oved Avi is recited by the individual bringing his first fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Israel – and it therefore links the seder participant to true redemption as he stands at the Temples' altar. This is likewise why we connect Passover to Shavuot with the counting of the Omer; Shavuot is after all the Festival of the First Fruits, a ceremony pertaining exclusively to the Jerusalem Temple.
There is an important difference between the text in D'varim and the text in the haggadah, however. The text recited at the Temple on the occasion of the first fruits offering concludes with verses 9 and 10: “and He (G-d) brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which thou, O Lord, hast given me.” These last two verses are omitted from the text in the haggadah. The haggadah ends with the Exodus.
This might, of course, seem appropriate, since that is the theme of Passover; why shouldn't the haggadah end there, then? But this highlights the question: why were these words chosen in the first place? Rav Soloveitchik has an explanation for this omission, which runs counter to Rav Riskin's interpretation above. He argues that the Exodus and the entry into the Land are two fundamentally different events – that the Exodus points toward Sinai rather than towards Eretz Yisrael.
The Bikkurim text of Arami oved avi extends over six verses, concluding with a refernce to Yishuv ha’aretz and the Bikkurim. In the Haggadah, however, the last two verses are omitted and the recitation concludes with “And the Lord brought us out with a mighty hand,” etc . . . [T]he omission of Yishuv ha’aretz is perplexing . . . The purpose of the Exodus was to create “a kingdom a priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:6). Pesach and the Revelation at Sinai are bound to each other because the full purpose of the Exodus was only realized at Mt. Sinai. Physical liberation without a spiritual identity would hardly be considered a fulfillment of God’s promise to the Patriarchs. Indeed, Moses’ assignment was to lead the Exodus and arrange for the Revelation, and nothing more. “And this shall be your sign that it was I who sent you. When you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain” (Exod. 3:12). It was not his mission to bring them into the Land, as indeed he did not. Eretz Yisrael was their singularity as a people, and the verse pertaining to Yishuv ha’aretz was therefore omitted.
But why then does was this text, which seems to point up the connection between the Exodus and the Land, chosen as the center of the haggadah? We have a paradox: an explanation that satisfies as to why the bikkurim text was chosen for the haggadah is unsatisfying as an explanation of why the last verses are omitted; and an explanation that satisfies as to why the last verses are omitted is unsatisfying as an explanation of why the bikkurim text was chosen in the first place!
One answer may lie later in this parshah. In chapter 27 verses 2-3, we read: "On the day that you cross the Jordan to the land that God your Lord is giving you, you must erect large stones and plaster them with lime. When you then cross over, you shall write on them all the words of this Torah. In this manner you shall come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, the land flowing with milk and honey that God, Lord of your fathers, promised you." The bikkurim text glosses over the giving of the Torah, taking us directly from the Exodus to the settlement of the Land. But our parshah doubles back, and restores the Torah to its rightful place. For we are not to enter the Land in the spirit of the Exodus, but in the spirit of Sinai: our first act is to record the Torah on a public monument. Only later, when the Land is settled and we bring its fruits, do we look back to the Exodus and G-d's mighty hand in bringing us out, starting us on the journey to the Land, and we give thanks.
The bikkurim text is to be recited in full once we are actually in the Land, once the Temple is built and the first fruits are brought. But this will not happen until the installation of the Torah in the Land. If the haggadah included the complete bikkurim text, it would be operating from the perspective of the completion of this process, whereas in fact the Exodus is only the beginning. Moreover, it would suggest that the process is completed entirely by G-d's mighty right arm, as was the Exodus. But if the process of completion depends on the installation of the Torah, then it is partly dependent upon our actions, our merit, and not only on G-d's actions.
The narrative arc of our festival cycle goes: Pesach-Shavuot-Succoth. This can be paraphrased as: Freedom-Law-Redemption. First, we must be freed from slavery. This is not something that depends on our merit; this is our natural right as beings animated by the breath of G-d. Next, we must receive the Law. This is the purpose of our freedom: not that we should follow our own appetites rather than Pharaoh's, but that we should bind ourselves to G-d's purpose. (See my earlier thoughts on freedom and the law here.) Next, we enter the Land, which is both a literal event and a metaphor for the coming of the Messianic Age. This is the purpose of the Law: to bring about a world whose operations are in tune with the divine purpose. (There is a midrash to the effect that creation begins with the word b’reishit because “reishit” or first, is another way to refer to the bikkurim, or first fruits. By this reading, the purpose of the creation of the entire universe was the mitzvah of the bikkurim offering – and making this offering is the completion of purpose of creation!) Reciting the complete bikkurim text in the haggadah would collapse this narrative into simple dependency on G-d; by truncating the text, we are forced to hold our breath, waiting until today for the text to be completed.
At the end of our parshah, after uttering a long series of horrible curses, Moses makes the following famous and enigmatic statement: “You have seen all that G-d did in Egypt before your very eyes, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land. Your own eyes saw the great miracles, signs and wonders. But G-d did not give you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear, until this day.” What does this mean? At the Exodus, at Sinai, at the time of all these wonders the people could not understand, and yet today they do? What is special about today?
What is special about today is that today, in our text, we stand on the cusp of entry into the Land, the cusp of completion. But today, as we read our text, we are in the month of Elul, on the cusp of the Days of Awe, and this is also special. The narrative cycle of Freedom-Law-Redemption is interrupted in the Jewish calendar by the Days of Awe and the Day of Atonement. And this, too, is not an accident. During the Days of Awe we face the prospect of our mortal completion, and in response seek to make a complete repentance. This is the proper time for completing the bikkurim text, not at the Seder table. If we included the full text in the haggadah, perhaps we would think that G-d’s mighty hand and outstretched arm had achieved our complete redemption in the days of our ancestors. By chopping off the text, the haggadah highlights to us that there is more to come. The bulk of that “more”, the commandments of the law, is revealed at Sinai. But the completion of the task, the first fruits offering of joyful thanksgiving, is saved until the cusp of entry into the Land, and so our attention is held until we complete the verses today. In our day, we cannot offer first fruits at the Temple. But we can offer something far more valuable. My favorite prophet, Hosea, exhorts the people in a time when the sanctuary was debased to offer “parim s’fateinu” – literally the bulls of our lips – as offerings instead of bulls of flesh. The bulls of our lips are words of repentance. The most holy offering we can make is not the first fruits of trees but the first fruits of repentance. The use of the truncated bikkurim text in the haggadah connects the season of our liberation to the days of our repentance, when we truly can complete the work of creation.