How We Decide on Gifts, How We Bring Punishments

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bechukotai

When the Torah refers to ma’aser, a tithe, 27;30, Rashi tells us it means ma’aser sheni, the second tenth of a harvest (after terumah, given to a kohen, and ma’aser, given to a Levi) taken in years one, two, four, and five of the shemittah cycle, to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there (or redeemed, the money to be brought to Jerusalem to buy food and drink).

R. Mecklenburg points out a debate about what crops are included. Rashi and Ra’avad (Tosafot, too, although R. Mecklenburg doesn’t say it) held the Torah only requiresma’aserfrom dagan, tirosh, and yitzhar, grain, wine, and oil. Rambam disagreed, thought the Torah gave those examples (in many places) only as examples, the obligation extended to whatever food grows from the ground.

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah only reports it, yet it is a remarkable debate, with ramifications for how we see the role of these agricultural gifts. For Rashi and his camp, they address central harvests—even a farmer could quite plausibly never need to give them, depending on what s/he grew. For Rambam, the gifts are how we react/respond to the experience of God giving us a harvest. Any harvest.

Erech Isn’t Monetary Value

The earlier part of chapter twenty-seven discussed arachin, where a Jew promises the erech of a person to the Beit HaMikdash. It’s tempting to translate the word as value, because the person must donate money to fulfill the pledge. However, as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch notes, this “value” pays attention only to the person’s gender and age range. What gives?

He first points out that erech in Tanach usually indicates a comparison. His two examples are places where a verse spoke of there being none of any erech to God. Comparison leads to an idea of worth (he’s not so clear on this, I think he means that by comparing two objects or ideas, seeing how they’re the same and/or different, we get a sense of each’s worth).

Were this about worth in the common sense of the word, though, we would not need the Torah to lay out the numbers. We could, for example, see what the markets say. Since erech is fixed by age and gender, he suggests the Torah is laying out a sort of overall value of the human soul.

On the one hand, it implies the human soul has a value, independent of the successes or failures of the person whose body is being inhabited. The 5 year old girl (or seventy year old man) has a certain erech, just because. (I’m not going to give the other hand, because that’s me questioning/speculating. What do you think R. Hirsch could have explained better?).

Middling Comfort

At the end of the tochachah, chapter twenty-six’s listing of punishments the Jewish people would suffer should they fail to serve God properly, Hashem promises not to reject the Jewish people. Malbim is bothered by two aspects of the promise, that the verse, 26;44, starts with the word ve-af, and also, when the previous verse spoke of the land being rid of the Jews while it rested from all their failures. That seems to be an example of God in fact rejecting the Jews, yet ve-af sounds like it adds.

Malbim suggests the ve-af has a broader context. Hashem is promising that despite the Jews’ many failures, their sins in the desert, their arriving in Israel and learning/adopting the Emorites’ ways (in flagrant contravention of multiple explicit warnings), Hashem will not reject them totally. Our verse should be understood along the lines of “even though they will have “forced” Me to exile them, take away their Temple, and the priests and Levites serving there, send them out of the Land, I will not completely abandon them to utter destruction.”

After giving exile rather than destruction, God sent saviors when specific salvation situations arose, such as in the time of Haman. All this, says Malbim, results from the unbreakable connection between God and His people, and the future plan for us to be the ones who bear His clear Presence among them.

It’s a promise God kept, but a promise only that we won’t be destroyed. Jewish history has, sadly, shown us non destruction leaves room for much suffering.

Religious Deterioration, in Stages

R. David Tzvi Hoffman—whom we will not see again untilDevarim— reports an idea fromSifra we also see in Rashi, on verses 14-15 of chapter twenty-six. I review it often, because it reminds us of the virtuous and vicious cycles we start with our own behavior. The verse speaks of not listening to God, meaning (R. Hoffmann says, based on Sifra) tho choose not to learn the mitzvot. Since they are not intuitive, need a Rabbinic tradition to be understood properly, this first stage implies not listening to how the Rabbis understood the Torah. People will leave—cue context of R. Hoffmann’s time—the Oral Law, not accept its reading of the Written Law.

Second level: when people do not learn, they quickly stop observing. [If I may be personal: I know many observant Jews who are not deeply involved in learning; even when they continue to observe, their lack of regular engagement with Chazal often leads to their coming up with theories of observance that are decidedly nontraditional and have many worrisome aspects.]

Level three, rejecting God’s Laws. Dereliction of observance fuels denigration [I think because if it’s important, how can I be lax? To avoid the cognitive dissonance, I convince myself it is not important], then a similar attitude towards others who continue to observe [again, because if what they’re doing is important, my failures become worse, and I don’t like thinking that way].

From Personal Failings to Looking Askance at Others

Level four, in the Torah signaled with the phrase “your souls will abhor my ordinances,” means the ways to analyze the Torah, expressed by a hatred of Torah scholars. (In his version, the hatred for the Torah scholars starts with their being the ones who teach us the correct way to read/understand the Torah, another expression of his concern with defending how Chazal read Torah.)

Level five was le-vilti asot, that one not do, such people will come to try to stop others from keeping the Torah [not on this issue, but we live in a time when supposedly progressive and tolerant people suddenly decide others’ well-considered ways of living are unacceptable. Here, too, having rejected the Oral Law and other explanations of the Torah, people will be unable to accept those who decide to follow those views nonetheless.

Level six, based on the use of the word mitzvotai, My commandments, is the rejection of God’s role in commanding the Torah (it starts with objecting to how humans read the Torah, devolves into rejecting the divinity of the Torah itself).

Finally, level seven, God forbid, people break the covenant with God, taken to mean will deny God’s existence, making a covenant completely impossible.

Even what we’ve said thus far seems to me enlightening, in its sense of how one step leads to another. We might think a failure to read the Torah in line with tradition is a discrete, standalone issue, where Sifra says it’s the first step down a path leading to abandoning faith.

Rashi already conveys much of that message. R. Hoffmann gave slight twists, but interested me more with his closing: “This interpretation of Sifra is verified by experience.” What was written in Mishnaic times sadly comes to fruition in many generations, including his.

What gifts we give to God, agricultural and financial, how God stays with us in our darkest times, and what we might do to incur those dark times, themes as we close Vayikra.

About Gidon Rothstein

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