Imagine, for a moment, that you are an Israelite. Your parents, along with their ancestors, were slaves in Egypt. Nearly forty years ago, God freed them and brought them out into the wilderness. You were born in that wilderness, and have spent your entire life living a precarious existence: in-between, dependent on God for food, water, and protection; no longer enslaved, but not truly in control of your destiny.
Finally, you are within striking distance of the final destination, the Land of Israel. The Jordan River flows in front of you, and on the other side you can see hills rising up into the distance
Your leader, Moses, old and weathered, called the entire nation together to hear a series of final speeches, which you have been listening to for the past several days. He reviewed the history of the previous forty years, taught about God, and listed commandment after commandment.
At this point, it’s enough already. You’re exhausted. You’re bored of eating manna for breakfast, lunch and dinner. You’re sick of living a nomadic existence. You want to settle down. You’ve bean hearing about the Promised Land your entire life. It’s time that someone made good on that promise.
This morning, you roll out of your tent to hear yet another speech. But today, Moses shifts gears. He leads you through a mental time travel journey.
‘Right now,’ he begins, ‘you are about to enter the land that God has promised you. You will settle it, and you will begin to build your lives. You will construct homes, and you will plant seeds. When the first harvest comes in, you need to do something. Gather samples of the first fruits from everything you plant and bring them in a basket to the Priest. And then, recite the following speech:
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. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us . . . and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt . . . He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 26: 5–10)
It looks like it’s finally about to happen.
Notice there are three distinct time periods in this narrative: the present, in which Moses is speaking to the assembled Israelite nation; the not-too-distant future, after the Israelites have settled the land and gathered their first harvest; and the distant past, beginning with the first Israelites who made their way down to Egypt and were enslaved.
Present, future, and past – all existing in a single moment.
In the current reality, the Israelites can imagine themselves in the Promised Land. They can see it, just ahead – across a river and over the hills.
But Moses, who will not be joining them there, is not content to let them simply arrive. In fact, he knows that if they just show up, the Promised Land will slip through their fingers. Two more things are needed – memory and gratitude.
The Israelites will not be able to appreciate the full extent of what they have achieved unless they keep the memory of where they have come from alive. They need to express that memory with gratitude. Only then can the achievement of the Promised Land be real for them. So Moses prescribes a thanksgiving offering of first fruits to be accompanied by the performance of a historical narrative.
And here we are, thousands of years later, in yet a fourth time period.
Let’s think about this in personal terms. Our lives are comprised of a series of journeys with numerous destinations. We have had struggles on our way. Successes, failures, disappointments, and surprises. But hopefully, we have managed to articulate goals for ourselves. Some of them we achieve. Others remain elusive.
There are the big life goals: Have close friends. Fall in love. Get married. Have kids. Have grandkids. Get a degree. Build a career. And so on.
And there are character goals – Be a kind person. Be a supportive friend. Be generous. Contribute positively to the world. Develop expertise in something.
Often, when we finally get what we want, we find that it is not the same as what we have built up in our minds. The hype overshadows the reality. Or, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for our successes. We are disappointed.
We are asked us to put ourselves into the sandals of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Partially-redeemed, able to imagine a Promised Land that is full of blessing, but required to recall the past with gratitude before we can fully experience that future in a sustainable way.
Rosh Hashanah is just over a week away. It is a time when we consider the journeys that we are on. Where are we headed? Do we need to perform a course-correction?
Let’s also consider where we have come from. Who do we have to be thankful to? What blessings that we had nothing to do with have made our lives and the lives of those who have come before us better. What can we offer as an expression of gratitude?
Only by taking the time to remember where we have come from, and how truly blessed we are, can we fully appreciate what we have to gain in the future.