Parshat Ki Tavo – Maaser and Truma: Declaring our Avodat Hashem
Devora Chait-Roth learned at Midreshet Lindenbaum for the year 2015-2016. She is in her second year of a computer science PhD at NYU, and co-directed a women’s summer beit midrash program called Bnot Sinai.
The way a person spends their money often tells a great deal about them — what they need, what they enjoy, and what they value.
At the start of Parshat Ki Tavo, we have the viduy maaser, the declaration that we make after completing the cycle of ma’aserot. In this declaration, we affirm that we have given our maaserot as commanded and have not used it for improper purposes.
This declaration is somewhat unusual. For the vast majority of our mitzvot, we do not have any sort of declaration that we have kept the mitzvot properly; we simply keep the mitzvot properly. What distinguishes maaserot to require such a declaration at the conclusion of the maaser cycle?
The first of the three maaserot, maaser rishon, is given to the Leviim. The Sefer HaChinuch writes that this mitzva is in fact a chessed to the community, giving us the opportunity to support the Leviim in their avoda.
As Rav Menachem Leibtag points out, the Leviim are tasked not only with aiding the Kohanim in the avoda, but also with teaching Torah throughout Eretz Yisrael.
Instinctively, we may assume that it is loftier to study Torah than to financially support it. However, Bereishit Raba notes that in Birkat Yaakov, Zevulun was placed before Yissachar despite their birth order, and explains the reversed order by saying that Zevulun supported Yissachar in learning.
It is surely praiseworthy to study Torah, but the midrash asserts that it may be even more praiseworthy to support Torah learning and enable the increase of Torah in the world.
By supporting the Leviim through maaser rishon, we take part in supporting the avodat hamikdash and Torah learning, and we enable the continuation of these two forms of avodat Hashem.
The second of the maaserot, maaser sheini, is given not to any particular group, but rather is eaten by the owners in Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim is the city of the Beit HaMikdash, the center of avoda.
Rav Leibtag notes that we gather here to eat our maaser sheini in an act of national unity in the makom haShechina, solidifying our nation’s characterization as am Hashem.
The Sefer HaChinuch adds that the rationale for maaser sheini is one that also promotes Torah — by gathering together in the city of the Sanhedrin, where the details of halacha are discussed and refined daily, we will be exposed to the kol shel Torah and immerse ourselves in learning.
The third of the maaserot, maaser ani, is given to ger, yatom, and almana, those who are commonly associated with poverty. Providing for the poor is a frequent theme throughout Tanach, and is highly emphasized by the neviim acharonim.
Although we already have a mitzva to give tzedaka, this maaser has a formal structure that ensures that the entire nation will be focused upon this chessed.
In each of these maaserot, we take our material wealth, and direct it towards avodat Hashem. We support the Leviim in their avodat hamikdash and in their Torah teaching; we gather in the city of the Beit Hamikdash as one nation and learn from the Sanhedrin; we give to the ger, yatom, and almana rather than enjoy the fruits of our labor ourselves.
The maaserot are beautiful displays of how we as the Jewish people treat our wealth and possessions: by using it for avodat Hashem.
However, material wealth is often hard-earned, and not something most are quick to give away. It is easy to feel resentful of these mitzvot, or to shirk the responsibility the Torah demands of us.
In light of this, we are given not just the command to give these maaserot, but the command of viduy maaser, of declaring that we have kept these mitzvot as we are meant to.
The Sefer HaChinuch writes that speaking about our adherence to the details of these mitzvot encourages us to act more carefully with them. But more than that, rather than doing these mitzvot quietly (and perhaps reluctantly), the Torah tells us to declare our keeping of these mitzvot, to proudly announce the choices we have made with our wealth and how we have directed them towards avodat Hashem.
Rav Hirsch comments that the commandment of viduy maaser comes at the conclusion of Devarim’s delineation of the mitzvot, and in this way, it serves as a sort of finale. The Torah outlines for us hundreds of commandments to guide us in living a life in line with Hashem’s will. At the culmination of these dictums, the Torah tells us to proudly declare the way that we use what we are given in this world — not for our own purposes, but rather for our avodat Hashem.