A First Harvest and a Leader’s Last Message–by Ayala Emmett

He was a leader who knew that his days were numbered and he wanted to make sure that his message would survive him and become a people’s legacy. It was not so much that he sought fame because he was already a preeminent leader; he was a liberator when slavery was the social norm, he freed a people when emancipation was unheard of. He was a radical proponent of One God when monotheism was not dominant. He was an exceptional leader, but not a perfect human being; he probably was not attentive to his wife and children, lost his temper, had a hard time delegating, and blamed the whole nation for losing his most precious wish, to enter the holy land. He publicly expressed the grudge he held against them, “because of you, God was incensed with me too, and told me ‘you shall not enter it. Joshua son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter it’” (Deuteronomy 1:37).

The book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ legacy message, a densely rich narrative of a leader who “undertook to expound this teaching (Torah)” (1:3). “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel (1.1),” these words produced a book of Torah, 34 chapters of detailed instructions that Moses thought would be essential to his people in a future without him in the holy land. In this week’s Torah portion (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8) Moses addresses that long awaited moment of entering the land, a narrative that is appropriately titled in Hebrew Ki Tavo, “When you enter.”

Right away and with little preamble, Moses tells the people that the most remarkable thing about entering the land would be celebrating the first harvest. In the second verse he instructs the people to set aside a portion of the first harvest, put it in a basket and take it to a sacred place where God’s name would dwell. In that holy place the pilgrims are to turn over the basket to the priest who would place it in front of the alter. And that is not the end of the dramatic first harvest ritual. Right there in the holy place of God’s presence each Israelite will have to recite the exodus story in the first person plural, beginning with ‘our refugee father went down to Egypt’ and ‘our becoming a people’ and ‘our suffering and oppression’ and ‘our crying to God who freed us and brought us to this land and now we bring the first fruit of the soil.’ In constructing this recitation of gratitude, Moses removes himself from the exodus account; in his version, gratitude becomes about a relationship between God and the people. Food takes on this larger meaning of gratitude in the presence of God, followed by sharing food with the entire household, the landless Levite and the stranger.

Moses’ message about food is that it is greater than the fruit of the soil. Food is infused with gratitude in God’s sacred place, food is entwined with a history of migration, slavery, and liberation and food is to be rejoiced (in Hebrew, vesamahta, 26:1) in sharing it with those who need it, “the stranger, the orphan, the widow,” (26:13).

As we read this Torah portion tomorrow, let Moses’ message be heard by us. Let us remember the current tragic conditions of thousands of refugees fleeing the Middle East. While Hungary has become a place of shame and inhumanity and Europe seems to have forgotten the holocaust, let us call on our government not to be a bystander once again, but to declare that the United States will take in refugees.