Imagine that each year at tax time you made a declaration recounting American history — the origins of the country, its battles, its failures, its triumphs. Finally, you concluded, “and therefore I bring these taxes to the government.” It is hard to envision Americans enacting such a ritual.
Yet that is what the Torah prescribes in a passage made famous by its inclusion in the Passover Haggadah. As one brings first fruits to the Temple, which is indeed a tax, we read in Deut. 26: “You shall then recite as follows before your God: 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 God of our ancestors, and God heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression…” The Israelite finishes the declaration, “wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil.”
The imperative of national memory had special poignancy this past week on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington and motivated ADL’s co-sponsorship of the march. For as the Torah teaches us, it is essential to remember the past to understand and appreciate the present. The many distinguished leaders from across America the country who spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial recalled not only the words of Dr. King, but the long history of struggle, suffering, and resilience that both brought us to that moment and clarified the urgency of continuing the work.
Later in Deuteronomy (32:7), we are told, “Remember the days of old…ask your parent who will inform you, your elders, who will tell you.” It was moving to see Dr. King’s family and many who remembered the speech alongside those who had not been born in 1963 gather to fulfill the injunction to remember the ideals and reinvigorate our efforts to realize them.
We owe the past a debt of memory. Human advancement is the work of many lifetimes; as my slightly free translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s words put it at the March: “You don’t have to finish the work — but you’re not allowed to give up on it.” For all of us walking there in the heat of the August sun, and those watching it on TV and online, just as those who brought their first fruits to the Temple pledged to remember and renew, we felt both gratitude for those who had brought us to the moment and resolve to continue on the path so stirringly expressed 60 years ago on that indelible day in U.S. history.