Do we get the feeling that Moshe is putting the cart before the horse in our parsha? Consider the first mitzvah in today’s reading. When you come into the country you should take the first fruits of the land, place them in a basket, bring it to the place God has chosen, hand it over to the cohen and recite a formula in which we give a lightning fast summary of our history in Egypt, part of which we read in the Pesach haggada.
But wait a minute. It takes years for fruit to grow. And even if the Israelites took fruit from existing trees, they would have to wait two to five years until they were settled in their land!
In other words, after 40 years in the desert, on the cusp of finally entering the land flowing with milk and honey (this is repeated several times in our parsha) – the Israelites are being told what they will have to do in another two to five years!
Then, a chapter or two later we read, When you cross the Jordan to the land God has given you, you shall erect large stones and cover them with plaster. And then write this Torah on these stones. You will build an altar for God of uncarved stones, and you will offer burnt offerings to God. You will sacrifice peace offerings and eat and rejoice in the presence of the Lord your God. Well, it’s about time! Finally the people are being told something they can do immediately, as they enter the country!
So, what do we make of the first commandment about the fruit, which will be applicable only in another two or more years?
Before corona, when we could travel wherever we wanted, one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip for me was planning it. Looking up places to go, calculating how to get there, how much time to spend, what to see. Imagining the trip, envisioning it from the pictures, videos, articles and reviews from the internet, it was possible to enjoy the trip months before we boarded a plane.
The more I saw, the more I read, the clearer was the picture of what we would find and do. The picture never corresponded completely with the real thing, but that didn’t matter. I was enjoying the added value of thinking about what would be.
This may be the same thing. Moshe has mentioned other mitzvoth to perform in the land. In parshat Re’eh, he tells the people about the blessing and the curse they will recite from two mountain-tops (details of which also appear in our parsha), but this is different.
Here, in the same breath, the Israelites are being shown what was and what will be. You were downtrodden oppressed slaves, and now you will be bringing your own fruits to your cohen in the place that your God has chosen. Look how far you have come. Or more accurately, look how far you WILL have come.
Moshe is feeding the Israelites’ imagination. He is placing them in their own land, with their own property, bringing their own first fruits to their own cohen. That is the payoff after forty years of desert living. And how good it feels!
To be sure, Moshe quickly adds more commandments that he hopes the people will obey. He also provides a small bunch of carrots – blessings – to tempt the people to obey, and a large bundle of sticks – curses – should the people not obey. But these, too, are in the future. They all are predicated on the assumption that the people have entered the land, conquered it, settled it and lived real lives there. No matter how dire the warnings, we can put them in the back of our mind. The important thing is that we are entering the land.
We read these instructions today, and most of us can remember when this country became a place we could actually enter and take as our home. We have experienced the first fruits, we have experienced the blessings, we have experienced some of the curses.
As has been said many times before, our history is not linear, it is cyclical. What goes around comes around. Therefore, we have to work hard and do our part to ensure that the good parts of the cycle tarry as long as possible. The blueprints are in our hands to read and follow.