Shavuot II Shabbat – Erev Shabbat 29 May 2020
Week of 24-30 May 2020
Torah portion: Deuteronomy 14:22-16:17 Haftarah: Habakkuk 3:1-19
Theme: From memory to charity
As we celebrate the second day of Shavuot on this Shabbat, God is reminding each one of us that we are people of memory. His covenant is based upon memory: memory of God’s mighty works of love and compassion; memory of freedom from Egyptian slavery. Israel is a people of faith and of memory.
To have a good memory is an important intellectual faculty. God wants us to cultivate memory in order to increase and protect our own life and life around us by sharing with others the fruits of our work with great joy: “You shall rejoice before the Lord, your God – you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite who is in your cities, the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow among you” (Deut 16:11). The ultimate purpose of remembering is to increase charity by following the divine decrees. There is a gradual way of implementing the law of charity in one’s life.
First of all, each year every believer shall tithe (Ma’aser Sheni) his entire crop, his wine, his oil and the first born of his cattle and his flock and then rejoice with his loved ones in front of the Lord. The main reason for tithing is to educate the people of Israel in the habit of sharing and giving. Tithing is a school of charity and is therefore a slow process because giving away and sharing run counter to our natural tendencies. Nehama Leibowitz quotes Isaac Arama (Akedat Yizhak) who explains that “the act of giving away runs counter to man’s nature… To do so requires habituation and study. The Torah therefore begins not by limiting man’s property but merely restricting his use of it.” (Leibowitz, 145)
The second tithe is offered by the Torah to give each household the opportunity to celebrate the generosity of God in his presence in Jerusalem. This raises an important question and has puzzled rabbinic commentators. What is the purpose of this tithe considering that the beneficiary is the donor and his household? According to Abravanel: “The instilling of this reverence for the Divine will be accomplished by your performing these actions for the sake of a religious precept, getting practice in the performance of Divine precepts.” (Leibowitz, 145) Leibowitz contends that this position is rather formalistic because it fails to explain how the trip to Jerusalem and the eating before the Lord could instill deep respect for God. She supports the words of the Sages that the “second tithe was only given for the purpose of promoting study and reverence.” (Leibowitz, 145)
The second step in this school of charity takes place every three years when the believer is commanded to give the tithe not for himself and his household but for the Levite, the proselyte, the orphan and the widow. This tithe is to care for the poor (Ma’aser Oni) and the disadvantaged in one’s city and a special blessing is attached to it. It enables the believer to be compassionate and sensitive to the needs of a fellow Jew and to be aware of the world around him.
The third level of this gradual process of learning charity is the remission of debts (Shemittah law) every seven years. This is in line with the Torah prescription that the unattended growth of the seventh-year crops of field and vineyard were for anyone to glean (Lev 25:5-7). The law was applicable only to Jews. In the same way only Jewish slaves could be freed at the time of remission.
These different levels of practical deeds of charity were designed to make the people of Israel and each one of us agents and channels of God’s generosity to the world.
For Reflection and Discussion: 1. Do we really recognize and accept that the wealth we have is for the benefit of humanity in one way or another? 2. Do we educate those around us in our family and our community to cultivate the habit of giving?
Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995); Goldstein, The Women’s Haftarah Commentary (Woodstock, 2004); Leibowitz, Studies in Devarim/Deuteronomy (2000); Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary (New York, 1981); Scherman, The Chumash (New York, 2003).