After seeing the infamous 1930 photograph by Lawrence Beitler, which depicts the mob lynching of two young black men, a Jewish high school teacher named Abel Meeropol wrote a haunting poem titled "Strange Fruit." The poem was first published in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Later, Meeropol set his poem to music and in 1939 it was recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday. Her recording of "Strange Fruit" remains the authoritative rendition of this striking piece of music and its searing yet lyrical indictment of racism, intolerance, and violence. It includes these words:
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
In chapter 27 of Deuteronomy, Moses prescribes a covenant ritual to be enacted when Israel takes possession of its new home. Right after the Israelites' settlement in the Promised Land, they are to set up large stones, coat them with plaster, and write on them the words of God's teaching. Before the covenant ceremony can begin, however, the Israelites are to bring an offering of new agriculture, the "first fruits" of the fields they have harvested. Bearing the ample produce of their new home, the new settlers will joyously reaffirm the covenant and acknowledge their gratitude to God.
Parashat Ki Tavo 's covenant scene is inherently practical, custom-designed for people about to inhabit their first permanent home. The engravings on the giant stones legislate strikingly ordinary behaviors relating to commerce and social intercourse with one's neighbors. We, Deuteronomy's readers, quickly become aware that the Israelites are being called to account for how they will live in their new settlements and how they will progress toward civilized urban life. Moses's vision of how Israelite settlement will evolve is rosy, but over time, the sweet produce he anticipated would sour into a very different, bitter crop of strange fruit.
The covenant ceremony Moses envisioned never took place under his leadership (he was dead by the time Israel arrived in the Promised Land), but under that of his successor Joshua. In the Book of Joshua (8:30-35), the Bible happily reports that Joshua upheld Deuteronomy's commandments and scrupulously followed the details of the covenant ceremony Moses ordered. Notwithstanding several undeniable and arresting discrepancies between the two texts, the author of the Book of Joshua insists at least five separate times that Joshua upheld Moses's directives to the letter, and that Joshua's actions in the Promised Land took place precisely as specified in Moses's instructions.
Probably the most significant problem with this insistence is that Joshua's ritual does not take place at the end of a first-fruits offering. The covenant ritual so lovingly imagined by Moses occurs not after an agricultural harvest but after a brazen display of military savagery. The offering brought by Joshua and his troops is far from sweet; their ritual takes place right after the Israelite troops sack and burn the city of Ai. After ambushing and massacring the residents of the town, the Israelites kill the king, impale him on a stake, and bury him under a crude mound of rubble at the city's gate. Rather than bearing forward the rich produce of the field, the Israelite troops instead bring about bloody conquest in their brand-new home. These are strange fruits indeed.
How do we reconcile Joshua's troubling distortion of Moses's vision? How do we make sense of his audacious willingness to declare his fidelity to the Law of Moses with Ai's blood still on his hands? Much as we might like to, we cannot dismiss Joshua as faithless or disregard his claims of obedience to Moses's vision, because the text makes it abundantly clear how important to Joshua it is that he receive religious affirmation of his bloody offering.
We may feel a peculiar kinship with Joshua as the High Holy Days approach. We too want to believe that the things we do-personally, professionally, religiously-are in keeping with what God expects of us. But, paradoxically, the more confident we allow ourselves to feel that we've gotten it right-that we've finally crafted the kind of life God desires-the more important it is that we take a step back and think again. Joshua must have known that God would have preferred for the Promised Land not to be consecrated with the blood of Israel's enemies. So he tries frantically to convince us-and himself-that the blood spilled in Ai will be as pleasing to God as the first fruits from new fields.
We can surely sympathize with Joshua's desire to justify his actions, to argue passionately that his behavior in the Promised Land fits with God's desires, but ultimately, Joshua's story serves as a cautionary tale. This season of the Jewish year prizes not the satisfaction of religious certainty but the struggle of ongoing religious growth. The process of t'shuvah has at its heart our human capacity for humility, not our willingness to believe that we have offered exactly what God wants. Joshua's story reminds us that our repentance will have gone off course the moment we find ourselves feeling smug and confident that God cannot help but find our offerings satisfying.
It is probably unsurprising that the covenant ceremony envisioned by Moses turned out differently when Joshua enacted it in the real world. All of us act differently in real life than, during our calm reflective moments, we hope we will. But we must strive against this tendency; we cannot let our noblest ideas about how to behave dissipate when we breach the borders of reality.
Our actions and our repentance in this season must be built to succeed in the real world and in real relationships. This time of the Jewish year insists that we examine the genuine offerings of our hearts, not just the way we hope we will act in our solitary fantasies. These days of Elul are our time to become attuned to what our fellow human beings need from us. How do we strike the balance between inwardly focused personal growth and outwardly focused compassion? Can we be humble enough to recognize our own flaws but bold enough to know that we can improve? How do we make amends when we hurt people to whom we owe better? Without serious attention to these questions and rigorous commitment to self-improvement in the real world, the offerings we bring- to our God and to those we love-will quickly shrivel into strange and rancid fruit.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon is associate rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. He received his undergraduate education at Rice University, and received rabbinical ordination from the Cincinnati campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004.
Rabbi Hayon discusses the discrepancies between the covenant ritual described in Deuteronomy 27 compared with the account described with Joshua after the battle at Ai. What was supposed to be a harvest of thanksgiving and a recollection of history and God's presence becomes a celebration of the people's military victory. A look at both the prescribed ceremony and the actual one becomes an illustration of celebrating our connection to God, to values, to history and to destiny, compared to a self-aggrandizement of glory and might. And that contrast explains a great deal about the spiritual tensions in our own lives.
The military victory celebration described in Joshua 8:30-35 shows what occurs when we become so caught up in our achievements and strength that we come to glorify ourselves as the source of our success and as the masters of our destiny. When we lose our hold on humility and our connection to something larger than ourselves, we are left only with ourselves. And in the end, even with our great achievements, this can leave us feeling empty. By contrast, in Deuteronomy 27, when Moses described the offering of the people, with the writing of the commandments upon stones for an alter, he may have imagined a ceremony in which people recalled what they valued, summarized what they understood of God's expectations of them, and drew themselves in covenant toward a deeper and more relevant connection with their God, their history, and their future. That is a lasting lesson for us all.
Prayer is our modern equivalent of that ritual of thanksgiving and recollection of God's role in our lives. One of its purposes is to consistently turn us away from glorifying ourselves and to reconnect us to a larger source of our strength: to God, to our values, to our history, and to our shared journey as a community of Israel. As the High Holy Days approach, we listen to the sound of the shofar and to these lessons of Torah, drawing us from the narrowness of glorifying the self to reconnect with faith, with values, and with history, so that we can shape a future more consistent with our ideals.
Lewis H. Kamrass is senior rabbi of K.K. B'nai Yeshurun / Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1–29:8
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,508–1,537; Revised Edition, pp. 1,347–1,367;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 1,191–1,216