Often, when saying grace, it is natural to reflect on the process by which fruit and grain arrive at our table. We reflect on the miraculous transformation of seed into sapling, and sapling into mature tree. We think how each summer hardened vines bear clusters of soft sweet fruit. We ponder the great toil through which golden stalks of wheat become milled grain and the flour that is lovingly baked into a buttery slice of bread. When we give thanks to God for sustenance, it is tremendously meaningful to contemplate the elaborate history of the food.
Yet there is another slice of history that can be recalled before that next delicious bite. And no, it is not the flight of the Fuji apple across the Pacific or even the great crushing of oranges in the sunny factories of Florida. Rather, the history that may be remembered is the history of us.
In this week’s portion, Ki Tavoh, we find a liturgical passage that Israelite farmers were obliged to recite before giving a basket of first fruit to a priest of the Temple. The passage is especially strange because it ignores the history of the fruit, and instead focuses on the ancestral history of the farmer.
The farmer intones: “An Arammean nomad was my father, and he went down to Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous….And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us; and they laid upon us hard bondage… But God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm…And He brought us to this place, and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which You, O God, have given me.” (Deut. 26.5-10)
One would think that after the endless toil and sweat, something would be said of the plowing, tilling, seeding, watering, trellising, pruning, and harvesting that preceded the bringing of this farmer’s first fruit. But nothing of the kind is mentioned. Instead of emphasizing the creation of the fruit, something else is emphasized, the creation of Israel.
In this there is an essential lesson. Though it is important to know how our food came to be, it is just as important, if not more important, to know how we came to be; what travels, what wanderings, what ancestors, what miracles lead to our creation…
This Shabbat, take a few moments, as we usually do, to thank God for bringing a table of sustenance to us…but try as well, to take another few moments, to thank God for bringing us forth so that we can enjoy a table of sustenance.