This week’s Torah portion begins with the instructions for personal tithing.
The “first fruits” of the harvest of ground vegetation (onions, garlic, lettuce, etc.) are brought to the priest in a basket as an offering, as the beginning of the required tithe of a tenth of the total yield. Upon presenting the basket to the priest, the bearer was required to recite specific language of thanksgiving.
This is one of the few places in the Torah where specific wording is prescribed for use in rituals, rather than instructions, which leave specific wording in the hands of the priests. You might recognize part of the statement from the Passover seder where it is retained in our post-Temple times:
“I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us. … 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 Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He 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 Lord, have given me” (26:3,5-9)
After the full personal tithe was brought in “and given to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements” (26:12), another prescribed declaration was made called the viddui ma’aser, the confession of tithing:
“I have cleared out the consecrated portion from the house; and I have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, just as You commanded me; I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments: I have not eaten of it while in mourning, I have not cleared out any of it while I was unclean, and I have not deposited any of it with the dead. I have obeyed the Lord my God; I have done just as You commanded me. Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil You have given us, a land flowing with milk and honey, as You swore to our fathers.” (26:13-15)
This ritual of action followed by declaration is unique in our Torah. We are used to seeing blessings over an action followed by the action or prayers of thanksgiving after something happens, but this is neither one. These statements are declarations of compliance, of fulfillment of terms of agreement, of adherence to a contract. They acknowledge purpose and completion in order to maintain benefits and deter punishments. They are not so different from that little statement above your signature on your tax return: “Under penalties of perjury, I declare that I have examined this return and accompanying schedules and statements, and to the best of my knowledge and belief, they are true, correct, and complete.”
As we enter in to the Ten Days of Repentance in a few weeks and give serious thought to whether we have been living the life that G-d expects of us as Jews, let this week’s portion remind us that we Jews do things such as taking care of those in need because it is required of us and not just desired of us.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)