In this week’s parshat, Ki Tavo, we learn about the ritual of the first fruits. This ritual, marked on our calendar during Shavuot, consists of nine distinct parts, with five core instructions. This ritual — one we rarely participate in today, especially outside of the land of Israel — provides a blueprint of how to make meaningful experiences in our lives. As we navigate our coronavirus life through the Haggim and on through the winter, perhaps we can rely on this ritual for assistance.
First, the Torah tells us to collect the first fruit. This fruit is unique because the plant has never produced anything before. As I grew tomatoes for the first time this summer, I can say there is a special sweetness to them.
Second, place the fruits in a basket. By placing our work into a container, both physically and metaphorically, we have the chance to stop and reflect.
Third, we go to a place that God will choose to dwell. As the rabbis teach, God is present with us, wherever we are, but that we choose places that are full of meaning to us.
Fourth, we connect with our local priest. This person, a facilitator, helps us define the framework of the ritual to come. Finding meaning can be easier when we have rituals to rely upon, structure to help us.
Fifth, we use specific language about the inheritance of the land and declare, “I acknowledge this day,” (Dvarim 26:3). This language is specific and makes this ritual, not just an act of peoplehood, but something that brings us, as individuals, into the moment.
Sixth, that same priest takes what we have offered and places it before the altar. As we experience life over Zoom, we know how important physical actions can be. The act of placing it before the altar centers and focuses us.
Seventh, we recite a narrative of our ancestors. Starting from, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (26:5) to “The Lord freed us from Egypt” (26:8) to “God brought us to this place…a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9). As we learn on Passover, it is not enough that we tell the story, we must understand that we are a part of it.
Eighth, we are to bow low before God. This is something we do not do often in our tradition, for fear of idolatry. This reminder of humility, of standing before the Divine is no small act, but a serious moment.
Ninth, and finally, we enjoy it, v’simchat b’chol hatov, with the Levite and the stranger alike. While this is a formal ritual, we conclude it with joy, seeing our whole story, our whole life pass before us.
Now this ritual might seem arcane for some, but contains within it wisdom for all of us at this time. We can summarize the ritual in five core instructions: collect, go, recite, bow, and enjoy. Each of these core principles is a lesson in how to build rituals, not just in life, but during this period of a global pandemic.
When we collect the food in our gardens, we are out in the world. We see the good and the bad, we see what life is truly like. The rabbis in the Talmud used to say, puk chazei, go out and see what the people do. Our tradition is not one of isolation, but instead of being a part of the world.
When we are told to go, we remember to find holy places. Like the Mishkan and the Temple that followed, and the synagogues in our lives, we are instructed to find places that fill us up. This might be in nature, sitting in a favorite spot in the backyard or porch, or somewhere else entirely. The universe is full of holy places, go out and find the one that fits you.
When we are told to recite words, we know that we must find ways to express ourselves. Not just in art and in stories, but the essence of who we are in relationship to everything around us. To express who we are in ways that can be heard, seen, or experienced by others is a part of being human.
When we are told to bow, we engage in one of the most important tasks before us: being grateful. As challenging as it can be, there is always something to be grateful for in life. Each and every day, we can tell God and each other about the things that make a real difference to us.
Finally, we are told to enjoy life with each other. As hard as it can be to be apart, we have learned how essential we are to each other. Finding time to celebrate, virtually or in person, is a key to making life worth living. PJC
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is the director of Derekh and Youth Tefillah at Congregation Beth Shalom. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.