D‘var Torah: First Fruits, An Early Lesson in Inclusion
Andy Weisfeld, JTS Rabbinical Student, CY 2013, 2019-20
This week’s parsha of Ki Tavo begins by outlining the procedure for bringing first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem. “You shall take some of every first fruit of the soil…go to the priest in charge at the time…the priest shall take the basket (of fruit)..you shall then recite as follows before the Lord your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean…” (Deuteronomy 26:2-5). The person bringing the fruit continues reciting this passage, which continues for the next five verses, and gives a brief retelling of the Israelite history. We know from the Mishna in Sotah, Chapter 7, that the person bringing their offering of first fruits must say this paragraph “בלשון הקודש”, in the holy tongue. In other words, everyone bringing first fruits had to recite this Biblical passage in Hebrew, even if they did not know the language.
The priests had a system in place to help those who did not know Hebrew participate in this ritual. Mishna Bikkurim 3:7 reads, “Originally all who knew how to recite would recite, while those who did not know how to recite, others would read it for them [and they would repeat the words].”
Therefore, those who did not know Hebrew could ask for someone to assist in their reciting of the “Fugitive Aramean” passage. However, the Mishna continues by saying that some people stopped bringing the First Fruits. Bartenura, the 15th century Mishna commentator, reasoned that individuals who lacked the ability to speak Hebrew felt embarrassed for needing help reciting the paragraph, so they stopped coming all together. The priests could not allow individuals to recite the first fruits formula in just any language, so they instituted a new system which maintained the Hebrew requirement and avoided shaming those who did not know Hebrew. Now, every bringer of first fruits, regardless of their Hebrew ability, repeated the passage after having had someone read it to them. (Mishna Bikkurim 3:7). Therefore, the priests turned an exclusive ceremony into a ritual that everyone could participate in without compromising any of their values.
This story sounds like a modern one. Many of us know someone, or have felt uncomfortable ourselves in Jewish spaces due to lack of Hebrew confidence. However, the first fruits ceremony teaches us a powerful lesson in inclusion which we can apply to ourselves and our institutions. First, the priests recognized that, even in a happy moment, like the first fruit ceremony, some lacked the tools to celebrate with the community. We must be cognizant, especially in celebratory moments, of the individuals in our communities who do not feel included or cannot participate for whatever reason. We must treat them with compassion, and identify ways to include those on the fringe. Second, the priests identified how they were part of the problem. They did not blame the citizens for not knowing Hebrew well enough; rather, they performed a self-audit which revealed that their current practices excluded a significant portion of the population. Everyone has the right to participate, so when someone feels excluded, we must examine if, and how, our desire to have things a certain way dissuades others from joining in. Finally, the priests improved the first fruits ceremony by valuing inclusion without compromising their value of Hebrew language. We too can learn that inclusion is a core value which complements our system of Jewish traditions, and improves our communities and ritual practices when we prioritize it. Shabbat Shalom.