First Fruits: Parashat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
Earlier today I bit into a crisp, bright green plum. The plum, a new variety at my local farmers’ market, showed up for the first time this week. It is hard to believe
that after months of stone fruit wonders, there are still different varieties appearing. In the simple act of taking a bite, I was hit by the beauty of living in sync with the seasons and the delightful surprises that the natural world offers us. Small wonders of newness deserve to be celebrated.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, the Israelites are given their own fruit-inspired revelation. They stand on the edge of the Promised Land. Moses speaks to them of the ritual of first fruits, which they will be called upon to enact once they enter their new land. They are told, “When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you … you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil … put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish the divine name” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).
Amid the loss, the change, the wandering and the harsh realities of the desert, Moses makes the Israelites a simple promise: There is sweet new fruit still to come. Your wandering is not all there is. Or, as the Psalmist declares, “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy” (Psalm 126:5). Every new season brings with it the opportunity for hope and new life.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with our ancestors this week, as we engage in our own period of spiritual wandering. In these 29 days of Elul, we are called upon to reflect and repent, to regroup and renew. We are looking forward to what new promises lay ahead, just as we look backward over all that has transpired this past year.
The sweet taste of summer fruit and Torah’s message of hope come as welcome additions to this annual time of reflection. In this month of Elul, when our tradition calls upon us to change, it is all too easy for us to feel stuck or intractable. Even with promises of the sweetness that exists ahead, the tasks of Elul can feel difficult. Why is change so hard?
James Surowiecki offers one insightful answer to this question in his 2009 New Yorker article “Status-Quo Anxiety.” Surowiecki identifies what he calls the “status-quo default”; once a “default” option is identified, people tend to choose it. And, once making a choice, people tend to stick with what they’ve elected. In fact, “just designating an option as the status quo makes people rate it more highly,” Surowiecki writes.
It is often easier simply to stick with the status quo, the default option, the known entity. Change is hard. This we know. This we have heard again and again. But, still we remain the same. Still we choose the default. Still we stick with the known. Even when we are given promises of a better life ahead, we resist. Why?
Perhaps, the message Torah is offering us this week lies not only in the promises of sweetness ahead, but also in the power of community. Implicit in the first fruits ritual is an act of communal gathering. After they gather their fruit and present it to the priest, Moses instructs the people, “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you and your household” (Deuteronomy 26:11). In Egypt, the Israelites called out to God as a collective, they were freed as a collective, and they wandered as a collective. Just as our ancestors were instructed that their first fruits would be a communal offering, so too are we reminded that this month’s call for change is a communal call. There is a sense of empowerment in knowing that our change-work does not exist in a vacuum. It is a collective call to action. We can draw strength in knowing that those around us are engaged in similar struggles.
This is why Torah’s promise of the first fruits to come is so important this week. It offers a corrective to both our ancestors’ and our natural inclinations toward the static. It reminds the Israelites, in the wake of their not-so-distant complaints and calls to return back to the slavery of Egypt, that the journey forward is worth it. It reminds us that, as seemingly settled as we may be, the default option feels less appealing when we know that our community is there to greet us on the other side of change.
This is the promise of Elul: No matter what they hold today, our baskets will soon be filled once again.
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator and religious school director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.