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Celebrating First Fruits in Seattle

pear

If I had lived in the Holy Land in ancient times, I would have tied a tiny ribbon of reed around the stems of my budding fruit, my wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates or olives. And when they were ripe, at about this time of year, I would have packed them into baskets as ornate as I could afford, loaded onto the backs of animals with horn tips painted gold, and accompanied them in a stately but also joyful and musical procession, stopping every afternoon in towns large and small along the way to Jerusalem, where I would have offered them at the Holy Temple as First Fruits to the Lord.

A priest would have taken the basket from me, and I would have recited these words:

“An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there he became a great, mighty and numerous nation. The Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand an with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which You, O Lord, have given to me.

“Then, you shall lay it before the Lord, your God, and prostrate yourself before the Lord, your God. Then you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household – you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-12)

This was the honor shown to the gift of the fruit of the Earth by our ancestors.

But by drawing into the offering this remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, perhaps more is implied here even than gratitude for the abundance of food, and even more than the “feeding” of this abundance to the holy priests, who were the ones who were alone permitted to eat the First Fruits, signifying, perhaps, the renewal of the holiness “cycle,” if you will.

For me, it is deeply meaningful that we are called to contemplate, through the insertion of this enigmatic text, the resonance between the narrative of slavery, exploitation, and exile brought about by the descent into Egypt, and the narrative of the ultimate destination of that journey of redemption, which is the land of First Fruits. The people who offer their First Fruits with beauty and joy reflect a holy and fully embodied relationship with the land, a land which they perceive and acknowledge as the medium through which God brings blessings into the world, a land in which exploitation is rejected, a land which is to be used in partnership with the Divine to sustain all life, the smallest and most vulnerable especially.

We have so much to learn from these texts about how to bring this sensitivity and these practices into our lives.  I love this season of Shavuot and First Fruits for reminding me of the beauty and generosity of the Earth and God, and for reconnecting me with the inspiration of our beautiful sacred texts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell

Recently I have been reflecting on the contrast between the rational side of the way our minds work and the more mythic or story-based side. While modernity strongly favors science and the rational mind as the primary source of worthwhile knowledge, I would like to spend some time reflecting on the power and relevance of stories.

While this topic may seem to be unrelated to the overarching subject of Shmita that is the focus of this blog, it is by means of stories that we transmit our values and the nature of our relationships with other people and the world around us. Shmita seeks to guide and shape those relationships, and so, uneasily, because there are few actual “stories” that include Shmita as an aspect, these two topics do intersect.

When we think of storytelling, what do we think of? What are some examples of the stories that animate our behavior? Depending on who we are, we may think of the stories we find in Torah (they are stories, after all. Clearly for the Author of Torah, storytelling was an important medium by which to communicate in a way that was sure to hold its relevance over a time frame that has so far extended thousands of years). We may think of fairy tales. We may think of the life stories of our political or social heroes.

I’d like to include some of the other forms of story that fade into myth. This week I read an article published in Indian Country Today that argues in favor of listening to the stories of indigenous peoples about their social norms, and particularly the stories they tell about how they should and should not relate to the wild world that surrounds them.  It focuses on indigenous Amazonian storytellers, whose wisdom guided social norms with respect to use of the area’s natural resources long before Europeans introduced different, exploitation-based economic models into their system. Their stories about how to fish from the enchanted lakes reflect values (such as take what you need for your family’s use and no more or you’ll be punished)  and what place is sacred and needs to be avoided completely to ensure long-lasting abundance of wildlife to sustain a healthy ecosystem (modern scientists have found this to be a biodiversity hotspot) that are nearly lost to modernity, and are only recently being re-discovered through modern biological study and resource management practices.

The resiliency of oral history and storytelling as a mode of transmission of important information can be gleaned from the almost incredible discovery that Australian aboriginals hold a 10,000 year long collective memory about the geography of the place they call home, recalling place names and locations of land that has long ago sunk below rising seas, but which can now be found and identified with modern methods of analyzing the sea floor.

What if we were to seek out this indigenous knowledge – not only about what exists, but also about how to transmit cultural norms that are deeply interwoven with these landscapes. What if we listened, really listened, and brought our scientific and our mythic minds to bear on addressing the questions of how to live on the earth and with one another? Will the stories of our day all be cautionary tales, about how this moment was used incorrectly, and the consequences? Or can we still take up the strands of knowledge that are around us and create resilient, enduring, and deeply “true” stories about the relationship of human beings and the earth, to guide our practices, and our deeper sense of who we are?  What would that type of storytelling look in the modern day? How can it be borne into existence?

As we develop experience living with Shmita and its conceptual offspring, the stories we tell to ourselves about what that experience has been will begin to form the basis of a new and enriched world, in which people long for and more deeply understand the meanings and possibilities of their own lives.