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Do the tithe thing
Passover, Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17; Numbers 28:19-25
by Rabbi Howard Stein
Apr 12, 2012 | 1590 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The regular Torah reading for the eighth day of Passover discusses the consecration of all firstborn animals to God and the festival calendar, clearly connecting to the observance of the holiday.

However, because the last day of Passover falls on the Sabbath this year, we also read the preceding section, which describes the annual tithe and the shmita year, the seventh year when all debts were cancelled and (more significantly for Passover) all Hebrew slaves were freed. While we might think that this section is added on to give a longer Torah reading for the Sabbath, this section has its own connection to the themes of Passover.

Certainly, the freeing of slaves resonates with the observance of Z’man Cheiruteinu (the season of our freedom), putting aside the conundrum presented to our modern sensibilities by the Bible permitting us to own slaves. Despite this difficulty, the annual tithe resonates with another important theme of Passover, that of caring for the hungry and the lonely. A key element of the tithe is that every third year we must keep the tithe in our own communities (rather than taking it to Jerusalem) and share it with the Levite, the stranger, the orphan and the widow; that is, those who have no share of land of their own. Certainly this reminds us of the words we recited just a week ago as we began to tell the story of our liberation: “Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover.” As we reflect on our national identity, rooted in the Exodus and the coming Revelation at Sinai, we must always be mindful of the high cost of participating in Jewish communal life and the imperative to make this communal life accessible to all Jews.

Another aspect of the tithe is that it must be brought with joy and celebration, and so we must greet all who seek to participate in our Jewish community. This element is expounded in an addition to Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, a fifth century collection of midrashim on the special Torah readings for the year. The midrash explains that all agricultural products could be redeemed for the tithe (the money then being brought to Jerusalem to buy food) except for water and salt. Why were these two products excluded?

It is because the generations of the flood and of Sodom had been afflicted with water and with salt, respectively, and we are commanded not to mix curses and blessings. The midrash continues with Moses complaining to God about the tithe, arguing that righteousness is the norm among the Israelites. Israel appeals to God to be kind to them as Joseph was to his brothers, when he promised to sustain them and their children despite the cruelty with which they had treated him in the past. (Genesis 50:21) But God responds that Joseph had taken one-fifth of the crops when he ruled in Egypt (Genesis 47:24), while God, who causes the crops to grow in the first place, only asks us to set aside one-tenth for the tithe. Rather than complaining about the need to care for those who are less fortunate, we must cheerfully perform acts of tzedaka for those who are in need.

Chag sameach v’Shabbat shalom!

(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Asssociation.)

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