“Welcoming the Stranger”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Kee Tavo, opens with the ritual of bringing the Bikurim, the first fruits of the season, to the Temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy chapter 26 begins: “V’hayah kee ta’voh el ha’aretz asher Hashem elo’keh’cha no’ten l’cha na’cha’la, vee’reesh’ta v’yah’shav’ta bah,” It shall be, that when you enter the land that the Lord your G-d gives you as an inheritance, when you possess it and dwell in it, that you shall take the first of every fruit of the ground that you bring in from your land that the Lord your G-d gives you, and shall put it in a basket, and go to the place that your Lord your G-d will choose, to make His name rest there.

By bringing the Bikurim to the Temple and delivering them to the Kohen, the priest, the Jew symbolically acknowledges that all of his material assets are a gift of G-d. The Jew therefore brings this symbolic portion to G-d, as a sign of gratitude for G-d’s goodness.

The Mishnah in Bikurim 3:1 describes the ritual of selecting the first fruits, tying a cord to the stem of the selected offerings and declaring: “This is the Bikurim.” Once the first fruits are harvested, they are brought with great fanfare to Jerusalem for dedication. The farmer would bring his Bikurim in a basket to the Kohen, take it back temporarily, as he recites a brief sketch of Jewish history underscoring how the land of Israel is a gift of G-d. At the conclusion of this declaration, the farmer puts his basket down before the altar, and it becomes a permanent gift to G-d.

Let us focus for a moment on one interesting part of the farmer’s declaration to the Kohen of those days. Deuteronomy 26:3 reads: “He’gad’tee ha’yom la’Ha’shem e’lo’keh’cha, ki vati el ha’aretz a’sher nish’ba Hashem la’avo’teynu la’tet lah’nu,” I declare today to the Lord, your G-d, that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.

The Rabbis ask the fundamental question: How can later generations of Jews say: “I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us”? Wouldn’t it be more precise to say: “Our forefathers came to the land”? A response to this can be found in our Passover Haggadah where we say: “B’chol d’or va’d’or, chayav ah’dam lir’ot et atzmo k’ee’lu hu ya’tsa mee’mitz’ra’yim,” In every single generation each person must see themselves as if they themselves went out of Egypt. In effect, every Jew has an obligation to see themselves as an inseparable part of the nation, and everything that occurred to our forefathers in Egypt happened to us as well. It is as if the land of Israel were given to us personally. Therefore, we are entirely entitled to say “vati el ha’aretz,” I personally came to the land.

A fascinating aspect of this question is the issue of whether a convert to Judaism, a ger, is entitled to say this declaration for the Bikurim. After all, G-d did not give his ancestors the land. The Mishnah in Bikurim (1:4) records this dispute. “The proselyte brings [first fruits], but does not recite [the declaration], since he cannot say: Which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give to us…(Deut. 26:3), and when he prays in private he says: ‘The G-d of the forefathers of Israel.’  When he prays in the synagogue he says: ‘The G-d of our fathers.'”

This opinion in the Mishnah, which is an anonymous Mishnah usually attributed to Rabbi Meir, indicates that when making a declaration before G-d, one must be absolutely truthful. Therefore, a convert to Judaism may not say “G-d of my Fathers,” since it is not true.

However, this is not the accepted ruling. In fact, it is explained differently in the Jerusalem Talmud: “It was learned in the name of Rabbi Judah: A proselyte himself brings the first fruits and recites the [regular] formula. Why so? ‘For a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.'” Originally, he [Abraham] was the father of Aram [the country of his birth], from now on he is the father of all humanity. Rabbi Joshua ben Levy said: “The laws are in accordance with Rabbi Judah.” Maimonides (the Rambam, the great Jewish philosopher, codifier and physician, 1135-1204), in his epistle to Obadiah the proselyte, concurs: “Behold that has made clear to you that you should say, ‘Which the Lord swore to our forefathers.’ And that Abraham is your father, and that of all the righteous who follow his ways. This applies to all benedictions and prayers. You should not alter anything.”

Maimonides, as the rabbis before him, proves clearly that Judaism is not a racial or biological tradition, it is rather a spiritual inheritance. Anyone who adopts the spiritual teachings of Judaism is entitled to say that he is the disciple of Abraham who introduced monotheism to the world.

It is no coincidence that parashat Kee Tavo is read in the month of Elul, prior to the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the days of repentance and introspection. Parashat Kee Tavo speaks of the ominous Tochacha, the warning of the retribution G-d will meet out to those who do not follow G-d’s words. This shrill message shakes us to the core, reminding us that it is time for self-evaluation and repentance. But how does the ritual of bringing Bikurim, the first fruits, dovetail into the theme of the Days of Awe and Repentance? Perhaps it is the question that we first raised that serves as the connection; after all, each of us is a ger, each of us is a stranger.

During the month of Elul and the High Holidays, it is incumbent upon every Jewish man and woman to look inside themselves, to check their deeds, to find the “stranger,” the “alien” in themselves that has allowed them to succumb to forbidden actions. We are not Canaanites, we are not Jebusites–we are all the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. We have declared that the Lord is our G-d. There is no room for the alien in us, because there is no such thing as an alien. The stranger in us needs to be welcomed, and become an integral part of ourselves, dominated by good and morality. It is in this spirit that we enter the month of Elul, the time of Teshuvah, and the Days of Repentance.

May you be blessed.