By Rabbi Jim Bennett
My father was a wandering pathologist; we moved five times during my childhood, as my father chose to leave his family medical practice and return to medical school and a residency in pathology, and then pursued his career as a clinical pathologist and professor of pathology at a series of hospitals and medical schools across the country. We established homes in Boston, Kirksville, Mo., Ft. Worth, Texas, Kansas City, Mo., Indianapolis, and Chicago, before I was 20 years old. We endured a sense of up-rootedness and insecurity. We never knew when my dad would come home from work and announce “we’re moving again!” I learned to adapt to change by necessity, and I learned the importance of family and faith as unchanging foundations upon which to build a life. I also learned, eventually, to forgive my father for having put us all through this, and I even learned to appreciate the fact that he did what he did for our sake, to better our lives, our situation, our welfare, and our future.
Reading the words of Parashat Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion, recalls my childhood experience. Moses tells the Children of Israel to make an offering of the first fruits of their labors when they enter the land of Israel for the first time, reciting these words: “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. . . .Adonai freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God 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, Adonai, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10)
Remembering their journey is a critical part of the Israelite experience. Knowing the experience of their ancestors, realizing how hard they worked to get us to where we are, being aware of their sacrifices and the risks they took for our sake, is a critical part of learning to appreciate all we have. Founding our own lives on this sense of gratitude and optimism is hard, especially when we may resent the struggles due to choices others have made for us.
The Torah then adds another, critical dimension to our offering of gratitude and our recognition of the journey of the past:
“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. (and) set aside in full the tenth part of your yield . . . and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements. . . .” (Deut. 26:11-12).
It’s not about us, after all. True, our fathers and mothers may have wandered a great deal to get us to where we are. Some of our ancestors traveled by boats, worked in sweat shops, took amazing risks, for our sake. Some succeeded, some failed, but all did their best to build lives from which we were able to launch our own.
So when we realize the bounty of our lives, what choice do we have but to share it with others less fortunate.
This is the month of Elul. Among other things, it is a time to take stock of our lives. As we reflect back on the journeys of our ancestors, our families and our own lives, may we give thanks, and may we give to others as well. And may our new year be even better than the one that is coming to a close.