Ki Tavo: Faith of the farmer

Ki Tavo: Faith of the farmer

For those of us in the Garden State who grow gardens, this year has been a particularly tough one. The deluges of June gave way to the searing heat of July, and between the wonky weather and fighting off hungry rabbits, every vegetable that makes it to the table feels like a small miracle. “Look, I grew a cucumber,” I think in awe, or “How did that little seed get to be a 6 foot beanstalk that is growing into the flower planters.” As I said a bracha with my family over our first tomato from the garden, I alternated between joy and wonder that I put so much work into a hobby with such an uncertain payoff.

It is in this space between anticipation and blessing that this week’s parashah, Ki Tavo, particularly resonates this year. Ki Tavo, a continuation of Moses’ long and diverse set of commandments for the Israelites when they enter the land of Canaan, begins with instructions for the future farmers when they find themselves in this same space of gratitude at harvest time. Given the uncertainty of growing crops, it makes sense to dedicate the first fruits to God, from whom all life flows. But the Torah requires the farmer to see his or her crop in the context of the entire Israelite relationship to God, with the historical perspective supplanting the agricultural. The farmer recites mikra bikkurim (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10), a capsule history of the Exodus more familiar to most of us as the core narrative of the Passover seder. Only once the farmer contextualizes the harvest within God’s ongoing relationship with the Israelites and sees how the blessings of the past connect to the present can he or she return home and celebrate.

The mikra bikkurim within the context of Ki Tavo is an odd piece of story telling, anticipating with the current generation how future generations would memorialize their past. There are similar moments of storytelling during the Exodus itself, when the generation leaving Egypt were asked to consider how they would teach their children about their experience of redemption (such as Exodus 12:26). And when we tell this story at the seder each spring, despite the first blossoming of life in the ground after the winter, we are thinking only about the Jewish relationship with God through the lens of history as well.

But for the farmer that Ki Tavo anticipates, the mikra bikkurim is about the both the past and the present, with the explicit connect between the Exodus and the land made at the end (“God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, Wherefore I now bring you the first fruits of the soil which you, Oh God, have given me.”) I think, however, that this connection is critical for reasons deeper than just teaching the farmer the backstory of how he or she got to this particular time and place.

Leaving Egypt required a leap of faith from the Israelites: the faith that they could leave the certainty of life as slaves for the unknowns of the desert. Though God may have freed them with “a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power,” in the desert they had to trust that God would provide for them even when they could not comprehend the road ahead. If they could take such an epic leap, the farmer might have the courage to take a smaller leap each year, willing to trust God in the face of uncertain weather, pests, and yield, a land of milk and honey that was not always reliable in output. The courage of the past becomes the determination of the present.

Today, whatever I plant in my garden, the stakes are not as high as they were for our ancestors who recited mikra bikkurim. But from them, we can learn to embrace acts of faith, even when the road ahead is unclear.