Shabbat Parshat Ki Tavo 5778
Vidui Maasroth – The last Mitzvah of the Torah
Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5772
Every so often I like to play the “if I was God, is this really how I would have written the Torah- game.” I know that sounds slightly heretical but asked properly I think of it more of an exercise in understanding why the Torah is written as it is, and not a real suggestion that it should be otherwise.
The bulk of the book of Devarim is a recording of numerous mitzvoth that were taught during the sojourn in the desert. This year the question that presented itself was – If I was God and I was writing the Torah, what is the last mitzvah that I would record at the end of the last section of mitzvoth? How would I end the last major legal section of the Torah? I am not sure that I would have come up with Vidui Maasroth, the confession of the tithes.
The Torah works on a 50-year agricultural cycle, there are seven cycles of seven years and the final year is the Jubilee or Yovel. Each of the seven year cycles break down further as well.
It is well known that the end of each seven year cycle is the Shemittah- the sabbatical year when the land lays fallow and unworked.
In addition to that there is a cycle for annual tithes and other gifts. Each year a small percentage of the produce is given to the kohen because the kohanim do not own land.
In addition to that there is an annual tithe, i.e. 10% that is given to the Levi who also gets no land and does not get meat from the temple.
In addition to that there are two other additional tithes that are given. Maaser Sheni, the second Maaser is another 10% of your produce that is either brought to Jerusalem and eaten there by you or the produce is redeemed for one and a quarter of its value and then the money is taken to Jerusalem and spent there.
Maaser Ani, is a tithe that is given to the poor.
Another 10% of your produce would have been prohibitive, and so the last two, the Maaser Sheni and the Maaser Ani are not given in the same year. Maaser Sheni is given in years 1,2,4,and 5 while Maaser Ani is given in years 3 and 6.
What emerges then is a further breakdown of the 7 year cycle into 2 units of 3 years and then the sabbatical year. You have one unit of maaser shi, sheni and then ani, and then another.
The very last mitzvah of the legal section is the Vidui Maasroth, a confession/verbal declaration that takes place after each mini three year cycle in the 4th and 7th years.
Chapter 26 Deuteronomy
12. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce the third year, which is the year of tithing, and have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat inside your gates, and be filled;
- Then you shall say before the Lord your God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them to the Levite, and to the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to all your commandments which you have commanded me; I have not transgressed your commandments, nor have I forgotten them;
- I have not eaten of it in my mourning, neither have I taken away any of it for any unclean use, nor given any of it for the dead; but I have listened to the voice of the Lord my God, and have done according to all that you have commanded me.
- Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel, and the land which you have given us, as you swore to our fathers, a land that flows with milk and honey.
This verbal announcement is the end, and you have to wonder why?
The first idea that should come to mind is that the underlying principle is giving from your produce to others is you must control your money; it should not control you. Sharing with and giving to the less fortunate is certainly a good reminder and that we must use our money productively and for spiritual purposes. That in conjunction with the Bikkurim, the first fruits brought to Hashem, the paragraph that immediately precedes the Vidui Maasroth teach us to recognize God’s role in our sustenance, our obligation to others and to use our financial resources accordingly.
That was the idea that was apparently in my head 3 years ago in 5769. On Tuesday morning I was looking through my old sermons and found the same question. The answer that I gave then was along the lines of that I just mentioned.
I continued with this sermon idea for two reasons:
- If I did not remember then there is a good chance that you did not either.
- This year a very different idea ran through my mind that I wanted to share with you.
The mitzvoth in general and Bikkurim/ Vidui Maaser in particular teach us that performing the mitzvoth is not only about obeying God as individuals. Certainly performing the mitzvoth is primarily about God’s will and obeisance etc. But there is more.
I think that these two mitzvoth teach us that the performance of mitzvoth is also what connects to our fellow Jews and to our history /ancestors.
When a Jew brings the Bikkurim, there is also a declaration. That declaration is familiar to us from the Pesach Seder, we begin with the wandering Aramean and move through the Exodus. We acknowledge that we have a history and an involvement with God and our ancestors. We perform the mitzvoth not in a vacuum but in the context of that history and it serves to connect us to our glorious past.
The vidui maasroth serves to connect us not to the past but to the Jewish people in the present. It does so in two ways.
- The actual giving of the Maaser forces you to connect to other Jews and to give to other Jews.
- The Maaser confession actually connects you to other people doing the same actions. The Vidui took place on Chol Hamoed Pesach at the Temple. There you had thousands and thousands of Jews all proclaiming their dedication to God and the mitzvoth and proclaiming that they have properly taken care of their fellow Jews. Imagine the scene: the performance of the mitzvoth themselves serves to unite us.
Sure the question might always be better than the answer and maybe there are other mitzvoth that could accomplish the same goal, but two mitzvoth that remind us of our dedication to God and place the performance of the mitzvoth in the context of our history and connection to the present Jewish community are certainly a good way to end.