This week, I try my hand at some prose fiction as a method of transporting us back in time through ancient Jewish ritual.
Arise and Let Us Go: Taking Our Place in Sacred Pilgrimage
Parashat Ki Tavo
Shimon couldn’t sleep. As the early rays of the rising sun slipped into the street, he noticed that he was not the only restless soul awaiting daybreak.
Batya, Shimon’s wife, stirred beside him. Together, they lay in the cobblestone street of Tzipporim, the central town of their region of the Holy Land. Joined by hundreds of farmers from surrounding fields—far too many to host in the town’s few inns—Shimon and Batya eagerly awaited their first pilgrimage to Jerusalem. There, they would dedicate the first fruits of their harvest to the God of Israel in the sacred Temple on Mount Zion.
As dawn illumined the town, the appointed supervisor made his way through the streets filled with rustic and pious pilgrims. קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה צִיּוֹן אֶל בֵּית ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ, קוּמוּ וְנַעֲלֶה צִיּוֹן אֶל בֵּית ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ, “Arise, and let us go up to Zion to the Temple of Adonai our God!” he shouted. “Arise! Arise!” Men and women roused themselves and whispered to one another of the journey that lay ahead. Shimon marveled that they had been able to sleep at all. “But perhaps,” he thought to himself, “when I’ve made the annual pilgrimage as many times as they have, I, too, will be able to rest the night before.”
Batya and Shimon shared a modest meal from their food pack, careful not to take any of the figs and grapes that were reserved for God. They made their way to the city gate, pushing their way eagerly to the front of the crowd. There, they beheld the creature their parents had told them about. An ox larger than any they had ever seen bore horns overlaid with gold. It wore a wreath of olive leaves on its head. And beside the gilded beast stood a troupe of musicians who would escort the company all the way to Jerusalem with the music of flute and lyre.
Shimon and Batya exchanged a glance, seeing in the other’s eyes their own trepidation and excitement. The supervisor had finished his chorus of קוּמוּ, קוּמוּ, “Arise, arise!” It was time to meet their maker.
This is the scene anticipated by this week’s Torah portion. The twenty-sixth chapter of Deuteronomy opens:
1 וְהָיָה כִּי-תָבוֹא, When you enter the land that the Eternal your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, 2you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the Eternal your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the Eternal your God will choose to establish God’s name.
Though the Torah doesn’t describe the pilgrimage that ancient Israelites like Batya and Shimon would have experienced, the Rabbis record in exquisite detail the inherited memories of the ancestral ritual. The story I shared earlier was based on these rabbinic accounts.
The Torah itself fast forwards to the dramatic dedication of the first fruits in the Jerusalem Temple. We can imagine Shimon, with Batya at his side, every step of the way.
3You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the Eternal your God that I have entered the land that the Eternal swore to our fathers to assign us.”
4The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Eternal your God.
5You 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. 6The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7We cried to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9God brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Eternal, have given me.”
Having completed the recitation, the farmer leaves his produce with the priest, exits the Temple, and returns home to complete his harvest for himself and his family.
This is the Torah’s most extensive ritual for ordinary Israelites. It involved almost everyone—women and men, peasants and princes, the learned and the unlettered. And while many of the Torah’s religious practices have been lost to history, this ritual still remains somewhat intact: Every year at Passover, we begin the maggid section of the seder with אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We take our place in the millennia-old recitation of our ancestors.
On Passover, this passage reminds us to see ourselves as if we personally went out from Egypt. Even in its original context, it had the power to insert the individual into a broader story. The Israelite farmer begins by affirming that his land is the inheritance of an ancestral pledge, and he concludes by announcing, “God gave this land to us, and in honor of that gift, I bring God the fruit of the soil which God gave to me.” The cosmic history of the Jewish people becomes personalized, and the individual bears the promise and potential of Israel’s covenant with God.
As the pilgrimage dawns, the ritual supervisor calls out, “Arise! Arise!” This is literally a wake-up call to a powerful journey of transformation. Each individual pilgrim has the honor of standing before God and personally embodying the covenant. But this awesome privilege requires preparation. One does not simply show up in the presence of God; one must first awaken to the responsibilities of the covenant.
Today, we too are about to embark on a pilgrimage. In a little over a week, Rosh Hashanah—the birth-day of the world—will inaugurate the yamim nora‘im, the Days of Awe. On that day, we will hear the sound of the shofar, itself a wake-up call reminding us that we ourselves are personally invested in the ongoing project of maintaining the world. The shofar calls out to us (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4):
עוּרוּ יְשֵׁנִים מִשְּׁנַתְכֶם וְנִרְדָּמִים הָקִיצוּ מִתַּרְדֵּמַתְכֶם.
Arise, you sleepers, from your sleep,
Slumberers, awaken from your slumber.
Examine your deeds, return in repentance,
And remember the One who created you.
Rosh Hashanah wakes us up, preparing us to take our place in the ever-advancing project of the Jewish people.
If it weren’t for Shimon and Batya, none of us would be here.
And if it weren’t for each of us, the Jews of two thousand years from now won’t be here either. Indeed, the entire world depends on us, whether we like it or not, and Rosh Hashanah shakes us from our torpor to demand we take this responsibility seriously.
The world doesn’t happen on its own; we make it happen. We bear responsibility for the both the successes and the failures of our society. Problems are not others’ to solve; threats are not others’ to combat; deceivers and demagogues are not others’ to denounce. They’re ours. The fragile earth relies on us for care, and the people who live on it require our support. Our tradition urges each of us personally to dedicate the metaphorical first fruits of our soil to acts of holiness, of righteousness, and of peace.
May these last fleeting dawns of Elul be ones of awakening and preparation. May each of us take our place in the course of tradition and the arc of history, both of which bend toward justice. And may the world be better in the year ahead for our having journeyed upon it.
 Mishnah Bikkurim 3:2.
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