Gaining a Broader Perspective

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



Gaining a Broader Perspective

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein


Our parasha constitutes the transition between the main section of Sefer Devarim, characterized primarily by its legislative quality, and the sefer's conclusion, which deals with more general, overarching issues: the blessings and curses, the prophetic song of Ha'azinu, and Moshe's death at Mount Nevo. Parashat Ki-Tavo opens with two mitzvot - bikkurim and the declaration of tithes (viddui ma'aser) - which, in effect, close the series of detailed mitzvot that we have been studying over the last several weeks. Why were specifically these two mitzvot chosen for the finale of this section?

In order to confront this question, we must review a central theme of Sefer Devarim. One of the primary purposes of this sefer is to refute a mistaken notion that may have been erroneously inferred from the first four sefarim - a view of the Torah as a mere compendium of independent laws. The Torah could potentially be perceived as an anthology of many specific mitzvot with no unifying ideology, with no single force pervading its entirety and yielding the diverse, multifarious commandments.

Parashat Ki-Tavo shifts our focus from the specifics of the practical realm to the generalities of the conceptual and emotional realm. For example, the mitzvot of the heart (such as love of God, fear of God, worshipping Him, "attaching oneself" to Him, the prohibition against believing that "My own power and the might of my own hand have brought me all this wealth," etc.) either appear exclusively in Sefer Devarim or, even if they do arise elsewhere, their major source of discussion is here. Only in Sefer Devarim is it emphasized that mitzvot must be performed "with all your heart and with all your soul." Only this sefer features emotional and philosophical illustrations of past events - "Only to your fathers was God drawn;" "He gave you manna to eat... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone;" "God was incensed with Aharon enough to destroy him." These verses serve to lift the past events from the purely factual plane to the depths of the people's hearts and minds.

The overarching message of Sefer Devarim involves the existence of a central, unifying theme that runs through the entire gamut of mitzvot. There is a single educational and conceptual line of thought that gives life to all the mitzvot, which themselves merely comprise the physical expression and application thereof.

Therefore, as our sefer reaches the end of its lengthy enumeration of practical mitzvot, it sets forth two laws in which this educational and conceptual component clearly emerges. In its presentation of the mitzva of bikkurim, the Torah deals mostly with the emotional declaration which accompanies the bringing of bikkurim. This declaration expresses a sense of gratitude and appreciation to the Almighty. It is no wonder that this exuberant proclamation of "mikra bikkurim" was introduced into the Pesach Haggada, which may be seen as the central educational event in the world of Halakha. In both instances - the seder and bikkurim - we are obligated not only to know cognitively, but to feel and transmit the experiential significance of mitzva observance.

A similar purpose is filled by the second mitzva of Parashat Ki-Tavo, viddui ma'aser. An individual does not complete his obligation by simply transferring the tithes to their rightful recipients. He must take advantage of the fulfillment of this mitzva in order to reap its spiritual and experiential benefits, derive the relevant religious messages, and strengthen his connection to his Creator. The performance of the mitzva presents the opportunity for one to pray to, and focus upon, the Almighty, which in turn will increase God's blessing upon the earth and its produce.

Thus, these two mitzvot form the conclusion that teaches us about the section in its entirety. The individual must penetrate beyond the religious act per se and reveal the spirit latent within the mitzvot.

However, as we noted, these two mitzvot form not only the conclusion of the preceding section, but also mark the transition to the finale of Sefer Devarim and the Torah as a whole.

The central topic of Parashat Ki-Tavo is the blessings and curses. These blessings and curses involve the establishment of a treaty between Benei Yisrael and the Almighty:

"To enter into the covenant of the Lord your God, which the Lord your God is concluding with you this day, with its oath, to the end that He may establish you this day as His people and He your God, as He promised you and as He swore to your fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov." (29:11-12)

We have reached the peak of the forty years of nomadic wandering through the wilderness, forty years of grueling religious training, during which "He gave you manna to eat... in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but rather man lives on the words that proceed from God's mouth" (Devarim 8:3). This lengthy, complex process of Benei Yisrael's development into God's nation concludes on the day about which we read in our parasha. It is on this day that God fulfills His promise to the patriarchs: "to be for you a God, and for your children after you."

Moshe captures the significance of this day immediately following the commandment of viddui ma'aser:

"The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules... You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God... And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are His treasured people." (Devarim 26:16-18)

This day is one of historical perspective for the nation. The long, rigorous process of training has reached its culmination, and the atmosphere is filled with a sense of certainty that this intensive process, with all its highs and lows, with its successes and failures, will yield its fruits forever.

The closing chapters of Sefer Devarim are replete with references to the eternal future. As Moshe addresses the people and brings them into the covenant with God, he looks out into his audience and sees not only the generation of the wilderness, but also "those who are not with us here this day." He repeatedly refers to the future generations: "And later generations will ask - the children who succeed you..."; "... it is for us and our children forever." The vision of the distant future characterizes the Song of Ha'azinu as well as Moshe's departing blessings to his nation. The Torah makes a point of engraving upon our hearts a vivid picture of historical perspective. Moshe stands atop Har Ha-avarim, the eastern banks of the Jordan River behind him, symbolizing the past, the generation of the wilderness and their experiences. Moshe looks ahead, to the west, which embodies within it the future, to which he is denied entry.

This motif of historical perspective, which characterizes the final parshiyot of Sefer Devarim, serves as the basis for the selection of the two mitzvot as the transition to the finale of the Torah. The ceremony of bikkurim calls for a look back into the past; the farmer bringing his bikkurim to the Temple was to see that day as the climax of a historical progression. In this sense, the day of bringing bikkurim parallels the day on which the mitzva of bikkurim was initially commanded. Significantly, the mitzva immediately preceding the discussion of bikkurim - the obligation to recall the attack of Amalek, at the end of Parashat Ki-Tetze - also incorporates the theme of historical reflection. Similarly, the mitzva of declaring one's conferral of tithes involves the recollection of the previous three years. Only this proclamation relates to individual memories - "I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of Your commandments," rather than those of the nation as a whole. But the individual then continues by anticipating the future and what it holds for the community: "Look down from Yourholy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel."

Chazal refer to this mitzva as "viddui ma'aser," literally, "the confession of the tithe," a title that directly relates to the relevant mitzva of this season, the mitzva of repentance. The most basic prerequisite to the fulfillment of this mitzva is the ability to rise above one's daily affairs and look from a broader perspective at what has transpired and what can be anticipated for the future. The obligation of teshuva requires one to scrutinize his life's routine and to improve it. This demands a precise evaluation of oneself - where has my life taken me until now? How will it proceed and where will it bring me if I don't involve myself actively in charting its course? Chazal were keenly aware of the appearance of this concept in our parasha and its direct relevance to this time of year:

"Rabbi Shimon Ben Elazar said: Ezra instituted that Benei Yisrael should read the curses in Torat Kohanim [i.e. Sefer Vayikra] before Shavuot and those in Mishneh Torah [i.e. Sefer Devarim] before Rosh Ha-shana. For what reason? Abaye said in the name of Resh Lakish: So that year will end together with its curses." (Megilla 31b)

We cannot see the curses simply as a phenomenon of the past, thus allowing ourselves to march calmly towards a secure future. These comments of Chazal demand that we internalize the need for an encompassing process of intense introspection, to alter the direction that has guided our lives heretofore. May we all heed the call and fulfill our responsibilities in this regard; may the year end together with its curses, and may the new year begin together with its blessings.

(Translated by David Silverberg)




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