Each week on the Sabbath, Jews read a section of the Five Books of Moses, completing the entire cycle each year. Recently, the portion included the “Bringing of the First Fruits.” When the Temple was standing, Jews from all over Israel brought the first produce of the year as an offering to God.
Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, notes that many societies had first fruits ceremonies. But the Jews’ ceremony was different. For one thing, they are instructed to recite the following:
My ancestor was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt and lived there as a stranger, few in number, and there became a great nation, strong and numerous. The Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labour. We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors. The Lord heard our voice and saw our suffering, our toil and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with terrifying power and signs and wonders. He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now I am bringing the first fruit of the soil that you, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26: 5-10)
Yes, the first fruits ceremony is an acknowledgement that God is the ultimate source of our success. But the statement here is the backstory of our people, where we came from, where we travelled, and how we arrived home, and most importantly God’s active role in bringing us to that point.
It is, in short, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, which the great cultural anthropologist Clifford Geetz called the definition of culture. Not for nothing are the first few verses repeated at the seder on Passover, the holiday where we remember our becoming a people.
At the seder, another story is told about five rabbis discussing the Exodus. Four of five are converts or descended from converts, meaning neither they nor their ancestors were actually slaves in Egypt. Because Israel is a covenantal community, membership is open to people who accept Israel’s story as their own, binding their memory and their future to that of the Jewish people.
What Makes Us Unique
In that sense, conversion to Judaism is very much like becoming a citizen of the United States.
And it’s why the decades-long leftist project to undermine the story we Americans tell about ourselves is so destructive—it literally destroys and replaces our culture with something insidious and dangerous.
Consider the 1619 Project at the New York Times. As Matthew Boose has documented in these pages, it is an effort to redefine American history as having started not with the Revolution but with the beginning of slavery on our shores. It is an effort to erase and replace our story, and therefore our culture.
The project’s introduction claims that “ . . . nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery,” but of course that’s entirely backwards. Everything that made America exceptional grew out of our differences with the Old World, articulated in the Declaration, protected by the Constitution. As a friend of mine put it, the sins of 1619 and the Trail of Tears are real, and 1776 is the cure. Imperfect as we have been, we can never forget that we were founded in hope.
Yes, the Left would like to have us forget that the United States is, in Boose’s words, “a political community situated in a physical landscape.” But the Left would also like to cut the shoots of the ideas that make us unique.
It is that combination—a living embodiment of the aspiration to freedom and equality before the law and a national political community—that makes us so necessary in resisting the bureaucracies of the European Union, the theocracy of the Iranian mullahs, and the fascists of mainland China.
It is that combination that keeps us from being just another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call. In the absence of an identity that calls to those ideals, we will find identities in ethnic tribalism, in some bland, spiritless “citizenship of the world,” flavored only by pop culture.
In his potent little book, Earning the Rockies, self-described pro-globalization coastal elite Robert D. Kaplan writes that among other things, his drive across the country taught him this: that the cities with the most globalized economies were the most prosperous, but also the least connected to the country’s founding values. In too many cases, they felt that had more in common with other cities across the ocean than with their neighboring counties down the highway.
In Kaplan’s view, what redeems those sins of slavery and the crimes against the Cherokee is America projecting and influencing the world toward our own ideas, not by force, and not purely by example, but also by engagement. No, we can’t do those things without the necessary features of nationhood, vigorously enforced and defended.
We also can’t do those things if we forget who we are and what makes us different.
One can’t help but suspect that as much as anything, the powerlessness that comes with that amnesia is a feature for a Left that seeks power over ideals.