This coming Wednesday, August 28, marks a momentous anniversary in American history. It is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was highlighted by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The speech is known for its soaring rhetoric and piercing, prophetic call for equality and justice for all. The concluding portion of the speech has become part of our civic liturgy, alongside the Star Spangled Banner and the Gettysburg Address. As a great piece of liturgy, Dr. King turned to three key elements: 1) history; 2) recognition of an Eternal God of all; and 3) an appeal to social justice.
It’s appropriate that this week’s Torah portion contains a classic piece of liturgy that is built upon these same three pillars. Anytime a passage from the Torah makes it into the Jewish liturgy, it is a sign that our tradition grants it a special importance and that the text embodies an aspect of the soul of Judaism. Examples include the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) and the Friday night Kiddush (Gen. 2:1-3). This week’s Torah reading, Ki Tavo, opens with Parashat Bikkurim (the first fruits) (Deut. 26: 1-11), which includes the Bikkurim recitation that was recited once a year by those who brought Bikkurim to the Temple. After the destruction of the Temple, the Sages made this passage a central component of the Passover Haggadah, from which many recognize the words: “Arami oved avi” (26: 5-10)
“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. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.”
Rabbi David Golinkin, a leader of the Conservative/Masorti movement in Israel suggests that if we look closely at this passage, Parashat Bikkurim, we find that it contains three of Judaism’s most core values: 1) History, or remembering and connecting with events of our past 2) Gratitude to God for the blessings in our lives and 3) Concern for the weak and less fortunate.
Let’s look at each part more carefully. Personal identification with the history of our people is found in verses 3-10, including the text recited in the Temple and the portion of that text that made its way into the Haggadah. The text is couched in the first person singular or plural. The reciters thereby expressed their complete identification with events which had occurred hundreds or even thousands of years before their time, just as we recite in the Haggadah every year: “In every generation a person must consider himself as if he had personally gone forth from Egypt.” The mitzvah of Zakhor, Rememberance, is an essential one in our tradition, which we can all relate to. By identifying personally with events of our past, we can work to ensure that dark chapters in our history are not repeated.
Dr. King invoked history at the very beginning of his speech:
“Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.
“But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”
Our Torah portion’s call to us to internalize our history may at times seem ominous, particularly when recalling slavery, whether in Egypt or the American South. Therefore, this message is tempered by the call to express gratitude for the blessings in our lives. In the Bikkurim prayer, the theme of gratitude is emphasized through the repetition of the verb “natan” “gave.” Six times this word appears in our portion, reminding us that God gives the gift of first fruits and other blessings, which requires the people to thank him anew every year.
As Dr. King was building towards his climactic conclusion, he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2 He was quoting one of Isaiah’s messages of consolation, the section we read in synagogue in the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah. Like in the Bikkurim prayer, King reminded us that God is a force for sustenance and good.
By taking stock of our own past misfortunes as well as the blessings in our lives, the Bikkurim passage then reminds us of the next step, which is to improve the lot of those around us who less fortunate. Concern for the weak is found in verse 11. The text reads, “You and the Levite and the stranger shall enjoy all the bounty which the Lord your God has bestowed upon you.” In other words, the Israelite farmer must share his harvest with the strangers in the Land. Indeed, this message repeats itself many times in the Torah where we are instructed to leave gleanings (leket) and the corner of the field (pe’ah) and forgotten sheaves (shikheha) “to the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan” so that we should remember that we too were once strangers in Egypt.
Dr. King’s soaring rhetoric on social justice is unparalleled in modern history:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
Jewish tradition carries the themes of the Bikkurim prayer into the most solemn prayer of the upcoming penitential season, “Un’tane Tokef,” recited on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. We declare: U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah maavirin et roa ha-gezeira, Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness avert the severity of the decree.” Through repentance, we take account of our history and make an effort to change our ways. Through prayer, we not only express hope for a better future, but give thanks to God for the blessings of Creation. Through acts of righteousness and loving kindness we maintain Judaism’s longtime concern for the weak and downtrodden.
In the final peroration of Dr. King’s speech, he quotes the American song “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and focuses on the words “let freedom ring.” In so doing, he neatly brings together history, God’s goodness, and an appeal to social justice:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!3
As the High Holiday season approaches, may we be inspired by our Torah and our liturgy to examine our past, give thanks for the gifts God has given us and promote justice for all.