In these times, when we prepare ourselves for the Yamim Noraim, we read in the Torah: “Ki Tavo, When you enter the land… Veanita, You shall then recite…: ‘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.” (Deut. 26:1,5)
We are in days of self-assessment of how we conducted ourselves in the face of the challenges that the world has imposed on us in the last 12 months. We already experience teshuva days – not days of repentance, but of evaluating how we reacted to what we lived.
There are people who, no matter what happens in the world around them, react in a pessimistic and negative way. And there are people who, no matter what happens, always react optimistically and positively. In both cases there seems to be a break with reality. From another point of view, now it’s time to assess whether react automatically to what has afflicted us; or if, before reacting, we investigated the events by some filters: reason, emotion, ethics, Jewish values, human values.
Given some experiences, it is not always possible to give the necessary time to what we are living, in order to make it pass through those filters, giving us the opportunity to react in the most appropriate way. But by looking at the perspective of past time already, we can assess whether we reacted thoughtlessly because there was no time; or because we did not give ourselves the right to stop, to breathe and to think before reacting.
When a difficult experience of the past is common not only to a person, but to an entire community, it is expected to create memory mechanisms who could rethink the experience of the past. In other words: pains, fears, and anxieties of the past can become filters that teach us how to deal with similar situations in the future. Here comes the ritual.
The ritual cannot be disconnected from reality. The ritual must be a collective memory exercise that synthesizes meaningful experiences from the past and brings it to the present, in order to prepare us for the future.
This week’s Torah, Ki Tavo, brings us a ritual that had not survived in today’s Jewish tradition. God instructs the People of Israel that after they were settled in the land of Canaan, after the first harvest, they should separate the first fruits into a basket and declare before the priest: “I acknowledge this day, before the LORD your God, that I have entered the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to assign us.” (Deut. 26:3) Then we have a prayer ritual, right after the word veanita, “then recite”:
“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 LORD, the God of our fathers. And the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
The LORD 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 LORD, have given me.” You shall leave it before the LORD your God and bow low before the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:5-10)
The expression Veanita, a few weeks before Yom Kippur, somehow gathers the memory of Chag haPessach into the Hagada shel Pessach, which is a set of rites to help us record and experience our collective trauma: slavery in Egypt, a long time ago. Seder Pessach is born, so to speak, from the verse of the Torah that begins in Deut. 26:5 – passing through Shavuot as Chag haBikurim, the festival of the first fruits – perhaps the closest remnant of the ritual quoted in the Parashat Ki Tavo – and then we go forward to Yom Kippur, when the expression Veanita turns into Veinitem.
We are accustomed to understanding the passage of Leviticus, veinitem et-nafshotechem, as “you must practice self-denial…” (Lev. 23:27), translated into Yom Kippur’s fast, on the 10th of Tishre. So, characteristic of the holiday, fasting serves as the basis for a long ritual that we find in the Machzor as the Yom Kippur prayers.
So, a long Veanita is practiced collectively as Veinitem et-nafshotechem, which could be read as “You must recite yourself as follows before the LORD your God” (Lev. 23:27). In Yom Kippur we could offer before God the most valuable to us: our living souls, with love, as ordained in the Shema: “You will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:5).
Finally, after these rituals full of meaning, we will be prepared for Chag HaSukot, when we thank God in a similar way to the passage quoted in Ki Tavo: “And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that the LORD your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” (Deut. 26:11)