Perhaps the most well-known extended passage in The Bible is the compressed story of our people’s
origins and that we read together at the Passover Seder.
A wandering Aramean was my father. 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 to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26:5ff.)
What we have here is a declaration of identity: this is who we are as a people? This is the story we tell about ourselves, the story that confirms our place in the world, the values and aspirations, by extension, we embrace? This is, in sum, the components of our collective identity: our ancestors experienced vulnerability and danger. Nevertheless, we persisted and became a “great and populous nation” which caused the Egyptians to oppress and then to attempt to annihilate us. We did not succumb; rather, we cried out … and G-d heard our cry and responded, bringing us out of danger, leading us through the wilderness and bringing us to this wondrous and wonderful land of Israel. In response, I express my gratitude for these gifts by bringing gifts of my own. In other words, the story forms a kind of circle: G-d gave gifts to me and I, in response bring gifts to G-d.
This resonant passage is preceded by another one:
When you enter the land and take possession of it … you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil … put it in a basket and go to the [sacred center] … and present it to the priest … and say, ‘I declare this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our father to assign us. (Deuteronomy 26:1-3).
What we have here are two gestures: a gift to G-d in gratitude for our bounty … a part of our “saving history” and not the whole of it; and a statement, a declaration. And what follows the story?
You shall enjoy, together with the Levite and stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you and your household (26:1f.).
At this point, I want to summarize the contents of Deuteronomy 26:1-11 as a whole:
Bring the gifts of the land to G-d
Make a direct verbal declaration of gratitude
Make an indirect verbal declaration by means of a story
Bring gifts of the land to the vulnerable.
Two actions and two statements. Yet, we can go one step further by noticing a puzzling feature of the Hebrew of this story. In verse 3, the verb for “I declare”… as in “I declare this day before the Lord your God …” is in the past tense, namely “I have declared.” But when, before this moment, have we declared anything? All that precedes this verb is an action … the action of bringing the basket. So, how should we understand “I have declared’? Surely, that actions, as well as words, are also declarations, assertions about who we are, what we value, what we stand for. And, by implication, we must also see that the fourth section, reflecting an action … bringing gifts of the land to the vulnerable … is also a declaration of our identity.
Two types of declaration: the words we use and the actions we perform. Both represent commitments, both represent statements of who we are, as individuals and as a community. Both represent our values, our fundamental passions. Indeed, both matter … what we say and what we do.
L’Shalom, Rabbi Roger C. Klein