This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tavo, begins with a description of the ceremony for bringing the first fruits to the Temple. The farmer is to give the produce to the priest, who “set[s] it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God.” The farmer then recites the following:
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. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He 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, O Lord, have given me.
With these words, the farmer acknowledges that the fruits from the fields belong, really, not to any individual, but to God. If God had not freed the farmer’s ancestors from slavery in Egypt, there would be no orchard, no fruits; indeed, there would likely be no farmer. This ceremony is both a ceremony of thanksgiving, and a way to symbolically return the fruits to their real owner–to God.
In this week’s JTS Torah commentary, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond points out that these are the verses which we recount and interpret each spring at the Passover seder. We don’t recite the narrative in Exodus, the “historical” account of what happened. Why is this?
“The most compelling reason” for retelling and interpreting these verses of Deuteronomy rather than the narrative found in Exodus, writes Diamond, “is that [the verses in Deuteronomy] serve as a paradigm of what the retelling of the Exodus at the seder should be. Recalling the Exodus is not intended to be simply, or even mainly, a history lesson.” History lessons are factual and endeavour to be objective. (Although we have learned, I think, that history lessons rarely succeed in their objectivity. Nevertheless, they strive to be objective.) History lessons are separate and distinct from our daily lives.
No, recalling the Exodus is no history lesson. Instead, it is “an attempt to understand how our own lives are rooted in that experience,” suggests Diamond. In choosing to recount, interpret, and discuss Deuteronomy 26 (the opening of Ki Tavo) rather than the book of Exodus at our Passover seder, we are choosing “memory over historiography.” When we read Exodus, we read about “what actually happened.” We give ourselves a history lesson. “The choice of Deuteronomy, on the other hand,” says Diamond in his brilliant D’var, “implies that the exact details of the Exodus story are less important than the meaning of the Exodus saga for each subsequent generation.”
Tomorrow marks the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The media has busied itself with stories, specials, slideshows, documentaries, photographs, and articles in commemoration of the anniversary of the hurricane, and we can be glad that the country has not forgotten the tragedies that took place and are still taking place in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
But there are many ways to tell this story. There is the historiography of Hurricane Katrina. The history lesson, the equivalent of Exodus in the Torah. This is the story written by the authorities, the local and national government, the Army Corps of Engineers, the police force, the public housing agencies. According to this story, New Orleanians are optimistic about recovery. Almost two-thirds of public school students in New Orleans attend charter schools. Community health clinics are alive and well, ensuring that their clients remain the same. More restaurants are open now than there were before the storm. New businesses are springing up at a higher-than-average rate. Three-quarters of the population has returned as of July 2009. The Saints won the Superbowl, and I, Michal Boyarsky, watched my first football games. According to a recent Times-Picayune article, the latest Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that 74 percent of people surveyed were “upbeat” and 70 percent were “happy” with the direction of recovery efforts.
Then there is the memory of Hurricane Katrina, the equivalent of the opening of Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26. Countless photographs offer visual proof of the destruction and the spotty recovery of the last five years. Rachel Lee recently blogged about the ways in which New Orleanians are still struggling to get back on their feet, five years later. My friend Allison writes in her own blog about her memories of Katrina and the nightmares she sometimes still has about finding her dead cat stuffed in a shoebox in a drawer. Jordan Flaherty, a local journalist, published an article in the Huffington Post about the ways in which recovery efforts have been “shaped by systemic racism.” The fact that three-quarters of New Orleanians have returned since the storm means that approximately 100,000 people are still displaced. The BP oil spill has devastated the lives of many families and even whole communities, not to mention the environmental impact. Even the statistic about charter schools and the story of public school education in New Orleans has another side to it, as Mallory’s insightful blog posts have illustrated.
And there are people’s memories, in the stricter sense of the word. Several AVODAH placements are engaged, among other things, in recording people’s stories and preserving individual and collective memories of Hurricane Katrina. On the Rethink website you can learn more about the students involved in the organization and their experiences in the New Orleans public school system. The Innocence Project of New Orleans records the profiles of local exonorees, and Ressurrection After Exoneration (RAE) also records many personal stories. While we’re on the subject of the wrongfully incarcerated, Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun presents the compelling narrative of the Zeitoun family and the horrors they went through after Hurricane Katrina. The Hurricane Digital Memory Bank serves to collect and preserve people’s memories of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
People’s stories are everywhere. They are in the vacant lots, the blighted homes, the ill-paved streets. There are stories in the low-cost health clinics where I worked, in the Mardi Gras parades, in the Superbowl victory, in the Sunday second-lines. In the year that I lived in New Orleans, the communities that I worked and lived in were home to many of the kindest, most patient, and most generous people I have ever met. When folks could have been rolling their eyes at my ignorance, they explained things to me. They shared their stories with me despite the pain that it caused to tell them.
These are, as Diamond notes in his D’var about Ki Tavo, the “attempt[s] to understand how our own lives are rooted in [this] experience.” This is what we spent our year in AVODAH doing. This is what the Jews 4 New Orleans blog is about.