For Jews, this perennial season of firsts finds its origins in our sacred literature. One of the earliest rituals our people participated in was the giving of first fruits upon entering the Land of Israel. The giver would hold a basket of the best he [as was the case] had to offer. The text is familiar due to its incorporation in the Pesach Hagada:
“You shall then recite as follows before the eternal your God: My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the eternal, the God of our fathers, and the eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty 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 eternal, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10a)
This offering is made out of joy, intended to be shared by priest and pauper alike:
“You shall leave it before the eternal your God and bow low before the eternal your God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:10b-11)
While this ritual was created in a historic moment in time reflecting the People of Israel some 3,000 years ago, it has a life of its own each year when we read it in the Hagada and when we read it as a part of the Torah reading cycle in the weeks prior to Rosh Hashana. According to the Sefas Emes, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger, Poland (1847-1905), we read this text in our annual cycle just at the right time.
The mitzva of the first fruits was a preparation for Rosh Hashana. In this way, by the end of the year, the people would bring back the first fruits to the Holy One, and thus the end of everything would be joined with its beginning. Our sages also said the root of teshuva (returning) is cleaving to first fruits, beginnings. And now alas that we no longer physically have first fruits to offer, it is still possible to set everything right with the intentions of the heart.
It is during these reflective days of the Hebrew month of Elul, that Torah challenges us to consider our first fruits in preparation for our spiritual turning.
What will you be putting in your spiritual basket of first fruits this year?
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)