Parashat Ki Tavo – That Which We Have Received and That Which We Have Made

כָּל מַעְשַׂר תְּבוּאָתְךָ


Parashat Ki Tavo concludes the long code of laws that takes up the middle of Sefer Devarim (chapter 12-26) by introducing the covenant that will take place on Har Gerizim and Har Eval, once the Israelites enter the land of Israel. However, before it talks about the covenant, with its long list of blessings and even longer list of curses, it introduces the prayers (Devarim 26:1-15) that are to be said when a person brings the offering of their first fruits, bikkurim,  and the tithes of their produce, ma’aser, the laws of which had been introduced previously (Devarim 14:22-29 and Shemot 23:19, respectively). These two commandments take very similar forms, bringing food before ‘א, and reciting a short passage. However, the content of those passages varies greatly. The Bikkurim Passage focuses on ‘א’s actions and concludes with the individual bringing his first fruits in thanks. The Ma’aser Passage involves a list of actions that the individuals affirms having done, or refrained from doing, and then a prayer to ‘א for continued abundance. While the two rituals are superficially similar, they are different enough that their prayers did not need to be grouped together at the end of the law code, and could instead have been put with their laws. However, as a closer reading demonstrates, these two passages bear a strong correspondence to chapters 6 and 8 of Sefer Devarim[1], and they are structured accordingly.

The sixth chapter of Sefer Devarim discusses how Bnei Yisrael should relate to the gift of the land of Israel that they are about to receive from ‘א.

10 And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land which He swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee–great and goodly cities, which thou didst not build, 11 and houses full of all good things, which thou didst not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which thou didst not hew, vineyards and olive-trees, which thou didst not plant, and thou shalt eat and be satisfied, 12 then beware lest thou forget the LORD, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.[2] (Devarim 6:10-12)

There is a strong emphasis in this passage on the various things that Bnei Yisrael would receive as part of receiving the land, none of which they would have earned or created for themselves. Possessed of all this newfound wealth, the Israelites might lose focus on the source of this great gift, and so they are charged to “beware lest thou forget the LORD” (6:12).

In contrast, Devarim chapter 8 focuses on the products of Bnei Yisrael’s effort, rather than the things they received.

12 lest when thou hast eaten and art satisfied, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; 13 and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; 14 then thy heart be lifted up, and thou forget the LORD thy God, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage;

After receiving the land, the people are going to build on it, and work it, and make themselves wealthy with it, and as they raise themselves into a position of power they may forget the gifts they were given by ‘א. To combat this, the people are told to keep in mind where their resources and abilities come from.

17 and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth.’ 18 But thou shalt remember the LORD thy God, for it is He that giveth thee power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore unto thy fathers, as it is this day.

The Torah does not deny that the people made this wealth, that they earned it for themselves, but it does remind them that they could not have done so without the abilities and materials that ‘א gave them. Thus between chapters 6 and 8 of Sefer Devarim the Torah has made it abundantly clear that whether the people’s wealth has come directly from ‘א or they made it for themselves with the gifts that ‘א provided them with, they must remain conscious of their debt to ‘א.

This consciousness of ‘א is manifest in the two prayers of chapter 26. The Bikkurim prayer makes it clear that the Bikkurim offering is not about being grateful for the fruit, but rather for the land that the fruit grows from[3]. Corresponding to Devarim 6, the emphasis is totally on ‘א’s actions.

7…And we cried unto the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders. 9 And He hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:7-9)

Then once the recognition that ‘א has given the individual this bountiful land, the person states that in thanks and gratitude they are bringing the first of the fruits of the land before ‘א. The prayer of the Ma’aser is spent discussing what the person did with the produce that they had grown from the land that ‘א had given them.

13 Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God: ‘I have put away the hallowed things out of my house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all Thy commandment which Thou hast commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. 14 I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I put away thereof, being unclean, nor given thereof for the dead; I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, I have done according to all that Thou hast commanded me. 15 Look forth from Thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless Thy people Israel, and the land which Thou hast given us, as Thou didst swear unto our fathers, a land flowing with milk and honey. (26:13-15)

Once the person has declared that they have used their produce to feed those in need, Levi’im, orphans and widows, foreigners, etc, then they ask ‘א to continue to bless them with bounty and abundance.

The Torah recognizes two distinct forms of wealth, that which we have received, and that which we have made. While it might seem obvious that we should be grateful for the first category, it is much less obvious that we should be grateful for the second. The Torah therefore reminds us that we have to be grateful for that as well, not because our actions are in and of themselves meaningless[4], but because our abilities and resources are gifts from ‘א. What is most novel, however, about the Torah’s approach to wealth, is the use to which we must put it. Wealth that comes to us from ‘א must be returned, in part, to ‘א as a way of showing our gratitude. Wealth that we have made from His gifts, however, must be given to those in need. In this act we take up the Image of God upon ourselves, and the same way He redeemed us from Slavery and granted us a land we did not deserve, we give of our wealth to those who are downtrodden and in need, without thought to whether or not they deserve it. In our position as receivers of wealth, it is incumbent upon use to be grateful; In our position as creators and possessors of wealth, we are responsible to give to those in need[5].

[1] I have spoken more about these passages here.

[2] Translations form

[3] This is discussed excellently by R’ Elchanan Samet here.

[4] I note this due to the fact that many, many, commentators and thinkers throughout the years have used the verse, and thou say in thy heart: ‘My power and the might of my hand hath gotten me this wealth’ (8:17) to mean that our hands and power truly accomplish nothing, and that everything comes to us straight from ‘א.

[5] I have spoken more about the dualities in the nature of man here.

Parashat Vayikra 5774 – The Mishkan, the People, and the Land – Holiness, Inside and Out

וַיְדַבֵּר יְ-הוָה אֵלָיו מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Sefer Vayikra[1] is certainly the most law-oriented book of the Torah. While most of the books of the Torah include a significant narrative section, Vayikra has only a few scattered narratives, all directly connected to the laws of Vayikra. Adding to the uniqueness of this characteristic, most of the laws are very ritually oriented. While this section does include plenty of ethical laws, the vast majority are concerned with rituals and worship. This peculiarity led Julius Wellhausen, the founder of modern biblical criticism, to say that Vayikra is actually a very late addition to Tanakh, a ritualistic corruption of earlier prophetic ideals. More recent scholars have concluded that this was largely a manifestation of Wellhausen’s anti-Semitic beliefs, an intended denigration of what he considered to be the most Jewish part of the Torah. In this one facet, he may have been right. Vayikra is ostensibly the most Jewish book of the Torah. Much of the laws and rites we follow on a daily basis have their roots in Sefer Vayikra. Moreover, the entirety of Sefer Vayikra, down to its very structure, expresses characteristically Jewish ideas.

Sefer Vayikra can be very neatly split into two parts, Chapters 1-16 and Chapter 17-27. These two sections each deal with their own unique subject matter, and where there is overlap, the overlapping law or idea is discussed in two very different ways. The topic of the first section is fairly easy to determine, namely the Mishkan, the Korbanot, and the people responsible for both. This also includes the various persons that are not allowed to enter the Mishkan due to temporary “impurity”, and the ways those people acquire that status. The second section,  however, is a little more complex.

The second half of Vayikra jumps rapidly from topic to topic[2]. It starts off with the laws regarding animals slaughtered outside the Mishkan, moving quickly to forbidden sexual relations and the requirement not to live like the nations that previously inhabited the Land of Israel. It also discusses the laws of the Shabbat and the Holidays as well as the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. Surprisingly, peppered throughout the expected ritual laws we find an unexpected amount of moral laws. Finally, near the end of the Sefer we find the punishments awaiting those who fail to live up to the laws of the Torah.

While the laws of the first half of  Sefer Vayikra focus on the Mishkan. the proper way to act therein, and who may enter and who may not, the second half focuses on the life of Bnei Yisrael outside the Mishkan. It covers most, if not all, aspects of life. It deals with the sanctity of the People, the Land, and the special designated times of the People in the Land. Quite beautifully, the switchover from the first section to the second (in chapters 17 and 18) centers on A. The laws of slaughter outside the Mishkan, and B. The command to live differently than the nations that once lived in the Land of Israel. Slaughter outside the Mishkan means taking something that normally occurs inside the Mishkan and moving it outside. That external movement brings us outside the Mishkan and into the land, upon which Bnei Yisrael must behave according to certain moral laws.

These two sections are not simply two sets of laws put side by side, however. On the surface one might think that they both ended up in one book simply by virtue of each being too small to merit its own book. But in fact the first half of Sefer Vayikra very delicately and deliberately sets up from the second half. There are many linguistic and literary connections between the two sections, but the most significant by far are the usages of the words “מעל”, “טמא”, “טהור”, and “נדה” (in their various conjugations). All of these words possess great significance in both sections of Vayikra, but their meanings are not the same. While there are many words simply repeated in the two sections, these words are repeated with entirely different meanings. While in the first section they have an explicitly ritual connotation, in the second they assume very moralistic intentions[3]. “Impure” becomes “Morally Corrupt”,  and “Purification” becomes “Forgiveness”. Ritualistic terminology becomes Moralistic analogy. The language of the Mishkan becomes the language of the Nation in the Land.

The function of the second half of Sefer Vayikra is to take the first half and apply it to the rest of the life of Bnei Yisrael. It essentially analogizes the concepts of the Mishkan to the daily life of the people. The first half of the sefer describes the Mishkan as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the people who go there. The second half of Vayikra describes the People and the Land as the dwelling place of ‘א and what that means for the actions of the people on an individual and collective basis. Just as certain actions mean that a person cannot share ‘א’s space in the Mishkan, so too certain actions mean that ‘א cannot live in the daily life of the people[4]. The laws of Sefer Vayikra are not simply complex ritual laws. They are a description of what it means to try to live in ‘א’s world and to have Him live in yours.

[1] This essay draws heavily from ‘Introduction to Sefer Vayikra’, a lecture by Rav Menachem Leibtag easily locatable on, and the Jacob Milgrom’s Introduction to his commentary on Sefer Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series.

[2] Note: This paragraph is just a quick summary. There are plenty of other laws in this section, but these are some of the big ones.

[3] This division isn’t necessarily 100%, rather it is general trend.

[4] It’s worth noting that of its 51 appearances in the sefer, 49 of the uses of the phrases “אני י-הוה” are in the second half of Vayikra.