Commentary for Ki Tavo

26 Sep

This week’s parshah almost exclusively deals with the concept of reward and punishment, and does so in very stark terms.  If you do what God wants, many good things will happen to you.  If you don’t, many bad things will happen to you.  If you do this you will be blessed, but if you do that you will be cursed.  Before we get to that, though, there is a section dealing with the ritual for the contribution of tithes, which has a very strange component:

“When you have set aside in full every tithe of your produce in the third year- the year of the tithe- and you have given it to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, that they may eat their fill in your settlements.  Then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have cleared out the consecrated portions from my household and I have given it to the Levite and the stranger, the orphan and the widow, just as You have commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Your commandments and have not forgotten.  I have not eaten of it while in intense mourning, I have not removed it while impure, and I did not give it for the needs of the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the Lord my God; I have acted according to everything you have commanded me.  Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel and the soil you have given us as You swore to our forefathers, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 26:12-15).”

The connection to reward and punishment becomes obvious at the end, but this differs from the rest of the parshah with this required verbal declaration, which seems entirely pointless.  God is God, so of course God knows that we have tithed correctly, and we know that we have finished tithing correctly or else we wouldn’t be making this declaration, so for whose benefit is this being done.

The listing of the specific mitzvot of tithing is similarly unnecessary.  God knows the mitzvot of proper tithing, and so do we.  If we have, by some chance, forgotten one of the mitzvot of tithing, listing those mitzvot here does not serve as an effective last-second reminder because the middle of the ceremony of declaring that we did tithe correctly is a little too late to remind us that we have forgotten something.

The Etz Chayim chumash’s commentary to Deut. 26:13 points out that this ceremonial declaration would have been performed either in their homes before bringing the tithe to its depository, in shul, or in the public depository itself.  In the latter two cases, this loud public declaration would let others know of the mitzvah the donor had just performed, allowing for him or her to be publicly commended for this deed.  We often say that humility is a virtue, but in a society where we are trying to teach good behavior, it is important that those who do good be acknowledged by the community, to show that the example they have set is a worthy one to follow.

The donor’s declaration ends with a prayer of blessing and sustenance not merely for the donor and his or her family, but for the entire nation.  If the entire nation was as persistent in their observance of these mitzvot as the one making the declaration, that prayer will be answered, as God promises in Deut. 15: 4-11, promising that those who open their hands to the needy will never find themselves wanting.

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