by Rabbi Burt E. Schuman, Senior Rabbi,
Our Torah portion for this week, Parashat Ki Tavo, begins with two rituals incumbent upon the Israelites when they have settled in the land of Israel, rituals of Thanksgiving and of tithing described in Chapter 26, Verses 1-19. These rituals that reflect not only Israel’s unequivocal fealty to God but also of adherence to the social contract, both of which are recurring motifs in Deuteronomy.
The first ritual is clearly an expression of humility and gratitude toward God for entering and settling in the land of Israel after centuries of servitude and a forty year journey in the wilderness. The second involves a declaration that one has indeed fulfilled the Mitzvah of the
, the Tithe of ten percent of one’s produce and its distribution to the most vulnerable segments of the society. Let us examine both of these rituals in greater detail. Let us reflect on their significance to us as Progressive Jews living in a very different historical and societal milieu.
The offering of first fruits of the first harvest in the land of Israel, is not only an expression of gratitude to God for giving the land to the Israelites as an inheritance but also as an affirmation of the land’s bounty and prosperity, that it is indeed
Eretz Zavat Chalav
, a land overflowing with milk and honey. Tied to this notion is the verb
, you shall possess it, which may be interpreted in a military context but also suggests actively working to cultivate the land. This was clearly the case of the early
who often had to drain malarial swamps, irrigate arid fields and turn denuded hills into forests to make the land yield its bounty. Even the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, whose observance of Thanksgiving is based upon these verses, had to face great hardship and learn many challenging lessons before successfully reaping the benefits of “the good land”. Today through the painful experiences of climate change, sprawl and ecological disasters we have become keenly aware of the reality that the “good land” requires more than possession: it demands stewardship, care, respect for nature’s limits and the ability to “speak to the rock” when it comes to our relationship with nature.
One is required to present one’s offering to the priest and to recite an ancient formula which is now an integral part of our Pesach Haggadah, “My father was a lost Aramean”. It is a formula which recalls the story of Jacob/Israel in Egypt, Israel’s enslavement, God’s deliverance and fulfillment of the promise to bring Israel into the Promised Land. As with the Pesach Seder one must perform this ritual as if one had personally experienced the bitterness and despair of enslavement, the miracle of God’s signs and wonders and the blessings of redemption. Thus a generation born in the wilderness reclaimed for itself the historical ethos of the Jewish people, not only in the recitation of the formula, not only in acknowledging God as the source of blessing, but in sharing a festive meal with the family of the Levite and the resident alien in our midst. Today, we reenact aspects of this ritual for ourselves during the Pesach Seder and every time we recite Kiddush, Motzi or any blessing of use during a ritual meal or a Seudat Mitzvah shared with others. Moreover, through donations to a variety of social causes, or of our surplus bounty to food banks, emergency shelters or homes for runaway teens, we can extend our joy to those who feel very much like “strangers” in our society.
If the offering of the first fruits is primarily a personal or familial expression of Covenant, the Mitzvah of the
was designed to have major societal impact. God commands the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their produce in the third year of a seven–year cycle and distribute the tithe to the most vulnerable segments of society: the family of the Levite, widows, the fatherless, and the resident alien in their midst. They were then required to recite a declaration known as the
, the tithe confession, which was later incorporated in the Temple ritual during the fourth and final year of the seven–year cycle. Its purpose was to affirm that the mitzvah was fulfilled and that the distribution was not done in a state of ritual impurity or when one had contact with the dead.
The impact of the
was to reduce poverty and want and promote dignity and self-reliance as part of an extensive social safety described in the Torah. Here we have much to learn from both the Torah and our prophetic and rabbinic traditions. Tragically, much of the developed world seems to be moving backwards as the gap between rich and poor continues to grow, the middle-class is at risk and wealth seems to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of a super-affluent few. Here we have much work to do before we know a time, in the words of Isaiah 60:18, “You shall name your walls deliverance and your gates, praise”
Ken yehi ratzon