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Ki Savo: Owning the Narrative

Though there is a great deal of debate in the field of psychology regarding the relevance of one’s past to his or her current concerns or presenting problems, there is conclusive evidence that the manner in which one relates to his past is of critical importance. Research on trauma in particular emphasizes the importance of being able to create a narrative, the story we tell ourselves – and others – about who we are, what we have been through, and how our experiences and encounters have influenced us. We might at first relate very negatively to our personal narratives, feeling embittered or burdened by our pasts. One of the benefits and goals of psychotherapy is to help people to explore the elements of their life stories in order to own their narrative in a way that effectively integrates past experiences and choices into one’s present reality.

In this week’s Parsha, we read about the Mitzvah of Bikurim, which requires farmers to bring their first fruits to the Kohen during the harvest season. One interesting facet of this Mitzvah is the inclusion of the paragraph of Arami Oveid Avi that the farmers must recite upon bringing Bikurim. The Pasuk (26:5) commands, “V’Anisa V’Amarta,” and you will call out and say, “Arami Oveid Avi,” an Aramean (namely, Yaakov’s father-in-law Lavan) oppressed my father (Yaakov) and sought to destroy him. The farmer must go on to relate that this led to Bnei Yisrael’s descent to Mitzrayim, where we were further oppressed, and then redeemed, only to wander in the desert for forty years, after which we finally entered Eretz Yisrael. The farmer concludes, “V’Ata,” and now, “hinei heiveisi es reishis pri ha’adama asher nasan li Hashem,” I am bringing the first fruits that Hashem has given me (26:10).

The pesukim of Arami Oveid Avi are likely familiar to us from the Pesach Seder, when we recall this seminal point in our history during Maggid. It is curious, however, that this storytelling is part of the Mitzvah of Bikurim. Why must the farmer recount this tale in his declaration before the Kohen, and what is the connection between the farmer’s present-day fulfillment of this Mitzvah and Lavan’s dealings with Yaakov hundreds of years prior?

Furthermore, Rashi (26:11) notes on the next Pasuk, “V’Samachta Bichol HaTov Asher Nasan Licha Hashem,” and you shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem has given you, that the Mitzvah of Mikrah Bikurim (the recitation of the Arami Oveid Avi paragraph) is only relevant when farmers bring their Bikurim between Shavuos and Sukkos. This period is a time of unique joy, during which we harvest all sorts of bounty and feel a keen and acute sense of Simcha. If the farmer brings Bikurim after Sukkos, however, he does not recite these Pesukim. What is the relevance of Mikrah Bikurim to the Bikurim process, and why is it only required during a time of joy?

Rashi, quoting the Sifrei, notes that the declaration of Arami Oveid Avi is about the farmer recounting the good that Hashem did for our forefathers, and therefore for us, in a chain of events that ultimately led him to the present moment in which he has successfully harvested his abundant crop and is expressing his gratitude for all that he has and all that led him there. The irony of Arami Oveid Avi is that the recollection is actually marked by a retelling of hardship, persecution, pain, and suffering. Yaakov’s history with Lavan was fraught and our sojourn in Egypt was far from a holiday. And yet, the farmer bringing his first fruits to the Kohen is able, in that moment, to have the perspective that each event in the chain, every moment of personal and national strife in that history, is a part of an overarching narrative of goodness and Divine blessing.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Halachos, 4:13) notes that Bikurim are called “Reishis,” the first fruits, because in bringing Bikurim, the farmer is able to recognize that every step along the arduous journey of the past created an opportunity for a new beginning. The Pasuk in Breishis (1:1) says, “Bireishis Bara Elokim,” and Rashi explains “Bireishis,” in the beginning, as “Bishvil Reishis,”- literally, “for beginnings.”The purpose of the world and of living in it, says R’ Nachman, is to create new beginnings, and to see every moment of existence as a means of starting anew. When the farmer makes the declaration of Arami Oveid Avi, he is essentially reminding himself that all of his past experiences, personally and nationally, created the opportunity for him to benefit from Hashem’s benevolence, and brought him to the moment of the Mitzvah he is currently performing.

Owning our narratives does not mean that the past seals our identity; rather, by accepting our histories while remaining open to the creation of new chapters, novel experiences, and fresh starts, we can, through exploration of and engagement with the past, achieve healthy integration and continue to evolve in the present. When we create a narrative for ourselves, a way of understanding the twists and turns of our lives, we can say, “this is what did or did not occur, and it does not need to define my daily existence; there is opportunity for newness, growth, rejuvenation, and reinvention of self at every turn.” By recalling our history when bringing the first fruits we can see how things don’t always turn out how we expect, and a new beginning is just around the corner.

Engaging with the past is a precarious enterprise. If we ruminate upon all that has befallen us from a place of hopelessness or simply for the purpose of wallowing, we can get stuck in the pain and hopelessness of what was, rather than seeing how everything we’ve been through has created the potential for all we have become. Gaining perspective on past experiences, particularly troubling or painful ones, is difficult. This task can be more bearable when we have help, and when we can be guided toward a meaning-making perspective, or at the very least, a place where we can contemplate our past without blame, shame, or distorted thinking. It is for this reason that the Mizvah of Mikrah Bikurim only applies during a time of joy, for when we feel contentment and satisfaction in the present and hold tangible dividends of the past in our hands, it is far easier to be refreshed rather than ruined by the contemplation of our history.

There are two seemingly opposing perspectives on the Avodah of the month of Elul. Some approach Elul with fear and trepidation, and others approach this time with joy and excitement. This is because during this time, we face the narratives of our spiritual journeys, and this can be an intense experience and daunting task. At the same time, if we can come to the Teshuva process, the declaration of “this is who I have been this year, this is what I have done,” from a place of owning the past while recognizing in every low, every misstep, every moment, the opportunity for revitalization and renewal, then we feel nothing but immense joy in recognizing that our past is part of us, and has the potential to help us grow, and does not have to define us.

Perhaps this is part of why we recite the Ashamnu prayer in Viduy in an upbeat, sing-song manner. When we recite Viduy, we are declaring, Hashem, we’ve fallen far - and yet in every stumble and struggle, there is opportunity; every experience created the potential for us to be here, in this moment, ready to begin anew.

May we all be blessed with the ability to create wholesome narratives of the lives we’ve lived, the choices we made, and the experiences we’ve had this year. In this way, perhaps we can reflect on all the twists and turns and see the ways in which every moment has led us to this one, where we can face Hashem (and ourselves) with joy in our hearts, and gratitude for the opportunity to start again.

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