Parshat Ki Tavo

Day 16:
We Are What We Remember

There is a remarkable law in Ki Tavo. It tells us that first-fruits were to be taken to “the place God chooses,” i.e., Jerusalem. They were to be handed to the priest, and he who brought the offering was to then make the following declaration:

“My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and lived there as a stranger, with just a handful of souls, and there he became a nation – large, mighty, and great. The Egyptians dealt cruelly with us and oppressed us, subjecting us to harsh labour. We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors. And the Lord heard our voice and He saw our oppression, our toil, and our enslavement. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and His arm stretched forth, with terrifying power, with signs and with wonders. He brought us into this place and He gave us this land, a land flow­ing with milk and with honey. And now I am bringing the first-fruit of the land that You, O Lord, have given me.” (Devarim 26: 5-10)

We know this passage because, at least since Second Temple times, it has been a central part of the Haggada, the story we tell at the Seder table. But note that it was originally to be said on bringing first-fruits, which was not on Pesach. Usually they were delivered for Shavuot.

What makes this law remarkable is this: We would expect, when celebrating the soil and its produce, to speak of the God of nature. But this text is not about nature. It is about history. It is about a distant ances­tor, a “wandering Aramean.” It is the story of our ancestors. It is a nar­rative explaining why I am here, and why the people to whom I belong is what it is and where it is. There was nothing remotely like this in the ancient world, and there is nothing quite like it today. As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi said in his classic book Zakhor, Jews were the first people to see God in history, the first to see an overarching meaning in history, and the first to make memory a religious duty.

There is a fundamental difference between history and memory. History is “his story,” an account of events that happened sometime else to someone else. Memory is “my story.” It is the past internalized and made part of my identity. That is what the Mishnah means when it says, “Each person must see it as if he or she personally went out of Egypt.” 

Throughout the book of Devarim, Moses warns the people – no less than fourteen times – not to forget. If they forget the past they will lose their identity and sense of direction and disaster will follow. Moreover, not only are the people commanded to remember, they are also commanded to hand that memory on to their children.

That is why Jewish identity has proven to be the most tenacious the world has ever known: the only identity ever sustained by a minority dispersed throughout the world for two thousand years, one that eventually led Jews back to the Land and State of Israel, turning Hebrew, the language of the Bible, into a living speech again after a lapse of many centuries in which it was used only for poetry and prayer. We are what we remember, and the first-fruits’ declaration was a way of ensuring that Jews would never forget.

Jews have told the story of who we are for longer and more devotedly than any other people on the face of the earth. That is what makes Jewish identity so rich and resonant. In an age in which computer and smartphone memories have grown so fast, from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes, while human memories have become so foreshortened, there is an important Jewish message to humanity as a whole. You can’t delegate memory to machines. You have to renew it regularly and teach it to the next generation. Winston Churchill said: “The longer you can look back, the further you can see forward.” Or to put it slightly differently: Those who tell the story of their past have already begun to build their children’s future.

Parsha Partner

Life lessons from the parsha: “Today you have become a nation.” Moshe said this to us before we entered the Land of Israel. Doesn’t a nation require a land of its own? Moshe was teaching us that unlike other nations, our national identity is not tied to the land. Instead, it relies on the special bond we have with Hashem through adherence to Torah and mitzvot. Even though we were driven out of Israel, we retain our national identity through Torah observance. (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch) Learn more in this week’s Parsha Partner. 

(Courtesy of Partners In Torah)

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Bonus Material

My Family Tree by Josh Sacks

One day, when I was a child, my father came home with a huge rolled up piece of paper. Some of his relatives were keen genealogists who had researched their family history and drawn a family tree. We opened it out on the dining table and looked for people we...

Read More

Daily Goals

Daily Goals:
Memory is essential to identity – so Judaism insists. We did not come from nowhere; nor does our story end with us. We are leaves on an ancient tree, chapters in a long and still-being-written story, a letter in the scroll of the book of the people of the Book. That is as near as we get to immortality on earth: to know that we are the guardians of the hopes of our ancestors, and the trustees of the covenant for the sake of the future. It takes time for human beings to learn, to grow, to rise beyond our often dysfunctional and destructive instincts, to reach moral and spiritual maturity and create a society of dignity and generosity. 

Parsha Questions

  1. Why is story-telling important?

  2. How do you know the Jewish story? Who told it to you?

  3. In which ways does the Torah seek to ensure that the Jewish story is never forgotten?   

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