As the great Bible scholar Rashi says, commenting on the verses depicting receiving the Torah at Sinai, "all beginnings are difficult (Ex. 19:5)."
Transitions prompt anxiety. Combinations of transitions can be simply overwhelming. Imagine what it must have been for the Israelites, about to enter the land. The community they have created together barely coalescing, and now, after 40 years in the desert (not to mention 400 years of slavery), of waiting for the fulfillment of God's Promise, they're almost there. Standing at the threshold of destiny. What must have been on their minds? What might they have been imagining?
This moment of the journey is an intense one, overflowing with possibility.
"Ki Tavo el Ha'Aretz, When you enter the land... (Deut. 26:1)"
What to do when a dream is about to be fulfilled? Perhaps a strange choice, the first commandment in the Torah following entry into Israel is to bring the Priests the first fruits grown in the Promised Land. Gratitude before God is understandable, but that very first crop? Giving up the rush of sudden nourishment? Forty years of desert endured in order to set foot on a land of milk and honey, of fulfillment and sweetness, and that first taste is denied?
What lesson is to be learned from the juxtaposition of our first entry into the land and the rule of the first-fruits?
At least three facets of this question warrant reflection:
- To whom are we giving the gift? God? The priest is the one actually receives the gift as God's agent.
- The formula said when bringing the bikurim to the priest? "Arami Oved Avi," recited at every Passover Seder, yet translations vary; either, "My father was a wandering Aramean" or "An Aramean tried to destroy my father" among many other possibilities. We don't know what these words meant, or mean.
- Where is this gift given today? The priests, as biblically understood, don't exist. There is no Jerusalem Temple, and even most Jews who live in Israel are not farmers - how are first fruits given today?
We can no longer give a gift we would rather not give. We do not ritually intone words we never fully understood. Should this be experienced as loss at all?
With every new beginning, hearts overfilled with gratitude, so caught up in the realization of dreams that words fall short. Holy moments defy language. So the first-fruits formula of "Arami Oved Avi" might "work" because it aims, perhaps, to express words that defy meaning rather than limit the moment to words we utter intelligibly.
Words can reduce meaning, and so the power of the first-fruits ritual exists in its elusiveness.
Rashi was correct. Transitions are daunting. New, intense experiences, happy and sad, bring us to tears. We are grateful to be alive. We miss our loved one. We become inarticulate with rapture or rupture. We simply don't have the words.
So we offer the best we can, exhaling and inhaling in these elusive moments as best we can, knowing there will never be adequate expression.