Anyone who has gone through customs coming from an international trip has had to respond to the following question, “What do you have to declare?” Our government levies taxes and tariffs on particular goods, and tries to keep certain goods out of the country, so the question is meant to elicit an honest response on the part of one entering the country. We must declare the goods that we are bringing back.
My most humorous customs story (well, I don’t have that many) comes from when I was returning from Israel following my year of living there during rabbinical school. I was on my own—Yohanna and Ozi had returned two weeks earlier—and I was tasked with packing up our last things, cleaning the apartment and transporting back to the US the two cats we had adopted.
The process to get these cats ready for travel to the US is a story in and of itself, requiring trips to the vet and other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, including a visit to a “government vet” who sat in a sparsely decorated office in a Mandate-era building who barely looked at my two animals before stamping the requisite papers.
All documents in hand the flight to the US was uneventful, and when the flight attendants passed out the customs forms we were to fill out on board to get us ready to go through customs I dutifully checked off the question about “agricultural items,” since I felt it was the closest language to covering these two living creatures we got from the streets of Jerusalem. (At the time, the form has changed since then.) Handing off my form when it was my turn at the customs agent, he looked it over and asked, “what agricultural items are you bringing in?”
“These two cats,” I replied.
“But you don’t have any fruits or vegetables?”
“No, just the cats.”
“Ok. Welcome home.”
And that was that. I could have been bringing in the most diseased animals onto American soil, but as long it wasn’t an apple, I guess it was ok. (And I never had to show all the paperwork I acquired.) But, I dutifully told the truth and made my declaration.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains another declaration. In the reading, Moses is describing a ritual that is to take place once the Israelites are settled in the land. When they are settled to the point of growing crops, and they have enough crops to bring to the Temple for donation, they are to enact the following ritual as recounted in Deuteronomy 26:
When you enter the land that God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where God will choose to establish God’s name. You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say, “I acknowledge this day before God that I have entered the land that was sworn to our ancestors to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of God. You shall then recite as follows before 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, who heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. God freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. God 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 God, have given me.” You shall leave it before God and bow low before God. And you shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that God has bestowed upon you and your household.
Here then is another “declaration.” (This time of true agricultural products!) One is to honestly assess the first fruits of the harvest and bring them to the Temple as a sign of gratitude. The declaration includes brief retelling of history, of the hardship that it took to get to the point of being able to bring the first fruits. It is only after the ritual that one is able to enjoy the bounty.
We are now preparing to make our own declaration. As the High Holidays come upon us, we are going to need to do our own admission. We must come to terms with the ways we have come up short and have failed ourselves and others, we make firm commitments to improve ourselves in the future. As the month of Elul is drawing to a close, our first task—just as we fill out those customs forms before the plane touches down—is to do an honest assessment of what we need to declare so we will be ready when the holidays come.
And this declaration, like the one in Deuteronomy, requires an honest accounting, an understanding of where we have been and an expression of gratitude for all that we have been able to accomplish. It is only after this that we will be ready for the year ahead.
So, as the High Holidays are almost here: ”What do you have to declare?”