This parshah provides an opportunity to draw together a number of the themes we have discussed together this year. It begins with the mitzvah of the first fruits ceremony.
When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.
At this moment, while handing the basket to the priest, nothing is different than what may have occurred when worshiping the Canaanite gods. Then the following happens:
You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He Went down to Egypt with meager numbers … We cried to the LORD … and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a might 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”
God is not the representation of the cycles of nature. Instead, God acts through history, with a sense of a future that is not simply a repetition of the present. God cares about human misery and justice. God is not just transactional, but has a deep bond to us.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks quotes the historian Yosef Hayim Yersushalmi:
It was ancient Israel that first assigned a decisive significance to history and thus forged a new worldview … Suddenly, as it were, the crucial encounter between man and the divine shifted away from the realm of nature and the cosmos to the plane of history, conceived now in terms of divine challenge and human response … Rituals and festivals in ancient Israel are themselves no longer primarily repetitions of mythic archetypes meant to annihilate historical time. Where they evoke the past, it is not the primeval but the historical past, in which the great and critical moments of Israel’s history were fulfilled … Only in Israel and nowhere else is the injunction to remember felt as a religious imperative to an entire people. (Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, pp. 8-9)
Moses tells the people to create a work of performance art, with tribes standing at opposing hilltops at the entry to the Promised Land, shouting blessings and curses. The series of blessings and curses also resemble similar texts found in a Hittite temple in Northern Syria, a temple (Tayinat 2) which has the same architectural design as Solomon’s Temple.
And at this moment, Moses again shifts the cultural framework:
Moses summoned all Israel and said to them: You have seen all that the LORD did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his courtiers and to his whole country: the wondrous feats that you saw with your own eyes, those prodigious signs and marvels. Yet to this day the LORD has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.
The experience of a miracle is not enough to change our minds. We saw last year the commentary of Rabbi Leib on this passage, as understood by Rabbi Green:
Rabbi Yehudah Leib
But now that the whole Torah was completed and all their own behavior had been made into Torah, there was something fixed for all generations.
This is the meaning here of “this day.” … Torah had been formed out of all their own actions. This was the great merit of Israel in accepting Torah. Torah itself is completely beyond measure, “hidden from the eyes of all who live” (Job 28:21). But Israel deserved to “garb” that Torah; from all their deeds a cloak was made for the light of Torah, in the teachings and commandments of that Torah that is before us. Understand this.
Rabbi Arthur Green [commentary on this section of Sefat Emet]
[this] provides a key opening for a radical rethinking of revelation and the relationship between revelation and commandment. The Torah God reveals at Sinai is one of pure divine light, a vision of infinite love and giving that as yet has no particular form. Israel, because their hearts are open to receive God’s light, come to stamp the revelation with the particular forms — ethics, rituals, beliefs, taboos, and all the rest — of their own culture. For later generations these come to be associated with the revelation and are accepted as God’s commandments.
Torah in its deepest essence is nothing but God; what God gives at Sinai is God’s own self, but now transposed into the medium of words and language, in order that humans can receive it. The specific details of Torah … are derived from the actions and life-experiences of Israel. Through these Israel are “made into Torah.” Torah is then at once a thoroughly divine and thoroughly human product.
We hear God through our experiences, character, seichel, and the cultural symbols we have available to us. To listen deeply requires us to transform ourselves, and the experience of the wilderness was the field for that transformation. Rashi and Sforno write:
to understand the loving-kindness of God
now that you have seen the vastness of His love for you … [and] that you are able to sustain yourselves by your own efforts, the time has come that you will finally possess the necessary sagacity, a heart which is knowledgeable.
The prolonged emptiness of the wilderness opens our hearts to listen to what we already know.