Parshat Ki Tavo

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The Gift that Keeps on Giving

וְ ה הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה עַתָּ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתָּה לִּי הֹ וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקיךָ

And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you,
O L-rd, have given to me.” Then, you shall lay it before the L-rd, your G-d – Deuteronomy 26:10

 

There is a story told of a poor man who was so caring about others less fortunate, and so generous to others that he received a blessing from a great sage – the blessing of wealth.

The blessing rapidly took effect, and although at first he remained unchanged, over time the wealth took its toll on his personality. His attitude to those less fortunate began to change. He started to look down on them with disdain, and he stopped giving charity, slowly becoming more and more estranged from his once generous nature.

Some time passed, and he was visited by the rabbi who gave him the original blessing for wealth. The rabbi was very distressed to see what had happened, how even the beggars were now being  ignored and turned away from the door. He sat down with his wealthy host in an opulent lounge dominated by a large gilt-edged mirror and engaged him in conversation. “What is the difference,” the rabbi asked his host, “between the glass in the mirror and the glass in the window? Why can I see other people through the window yet I only see myself in the mirror?

Why, that is simple,” was the response. “The mirror has a silver coating applied to one side of the glass.” “Aha” replied the wise man, “so what you are saying is that an application of too much silver stops you seeing others, and causes you to see only yourself!

Although the rebuke was gentle the message was clear and taken to heart. Once again the doors of his home were opened and the poor were welcomed inside – and one corner of the huge mirror had the silver backing permanently removed.

The mitzvah of tzedakah – of giving charity – is a great one. A huge emphasis is placed in the Torah upon looking after the vulnerable and destitute. We are all responsible for those around us who need help. The Jewish perspective on charity is that any money we have in our possession is only there in trust – for us to act as responsible trustees. Part of the money we earn is technically not ours – it is simply deposited with us to return to its rightful owners. The needy man or woman to whom we give charity is actually the real owner of the money – but G-d wanted a system where some have and some do not, and where the former helps the latter.

This difficult concept – that what we own might not really all belong to us – is seen very clearly in this week’s parsha. Right away we are told that despite the feelings of ownership a farmer has towards his harvest; despite the joy he feels when the fruit ripens on time … the first fruits go to the House of G-d. They are taken, with much joy, to the Kohanim in the Holy Temple, the Beit HaMikdash. Yes, the farmer has invested time, effort, sweat and tears in producing this fine harvest, but the first fruits belong to G-d. And from every crop a small percentage is given to the Kohanim, then ten percent to the Levites, and then in certain years, ten percent to the poor.

The message is clear. Yes you worked hard for this – but don’t forget who stands behind the scenes: G-d. And whatever He grants you, part of it belongs to Kohen, part to the Levite and part to the poor.

Interestingly, giving tithes is the only mitzvah in the Torah where G-d permits us to test him (Malachi 3:10): Give the correct tithes, we are told, and G-d will grant us unlimited blessings. “Test me,” says G-d.

In practical terms, the Halacha is that we should be giving 10% of our income to a charity of our choice. Yes, it might be difficult, but that is exactly what it is for, and in today’s difficult times, we can be sure that every penny will be put to good use. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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