Ki Tavo – Do Not Neglect Nor Transgress

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…lo avarti mi’mitzvoteycha v’lo sha’chachti “I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of your commandments” (Devarim 26:13). This is the pledge that God commanded the children of Israel to declare every third year after removing their tithe from their premises and having given it to the Levites and the indigents in the Land. It was only after they had fully divested themselves of all portions of the crop that were to be donated that they could make this formal declaration and pray for God’s continued blessing upon the land and the people of Israel. Why then the apparent redundancy in this statement? One who has not transgressed the commandments has obviously not neglected them.

The S’fat Emet, a nineteenth century Chasidic rebbe and scholar, comments that sometimes we may perform a mitzvah only out of habit neglecting the reason behind it. While we may fulfill the commandment we might lack the proper kavanah, or intent. Therefore, we might expand this declaration to say, “ I have not performed any of the mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, without feeling, or proper devotion.”

As the High Holy Days are approaching, we are to turn our intentions to the sins that we have committed over the past year. The shelichot (penitential prayers recited following the last Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah) ask us to examine our negative actions and our negative attitudes such as mendacity, frivolity, haughtiness and dozens of other words that we do not use in normal conversation. But the spirit of repentance during the Holy Days demands that we go beyond negative commands (the “Thou Shall Nots”) that we have transgressed, and requires us to consider the positive commands (the “Thou Shalls”) that we may have neglected.

In other words our introspection should include not only sins of commission, but also sins of omission. This I believe is why we are asked to declare that we have not only transgressed the command not to oppress the stranger, as the Egyptians did to us when we sojourned among them (vv. 5-8), but that we are not to neglect the plight and the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan (vv.12-13). In Judaism helping the needy, the helpless and the homeless is not merely a nice thing to do, but rather is considered a sacred obligation commanded in the Torah.

According to Torah those with means are to bring two tithes. The first is to be for the Levites who serve in the Temple, to maintain the religious institutions in Israel. We fulfill this today by supporting the local synagogue. The second tithe was to be consumed in Jerusalem to celebrate our good fortune in God’s presence. God did not intend us to be ascetics, but rather to appreciate His generosity and beneficence. But every third year the second tithe was to be given in entirety for the support of the needy. The social transfer of wealth is a God ordained transaction. There is no need for hoarding in the economy of God, and true believers should never advocate an “I made it, I’ll keep it” philosophy. After all, Torah tells us that God is the provider of all good fortune (v.9). This system of tithe and declaration requires us to abandon self-protectionism that denies the power, and the generosity of God.

Several years ago I was given an article in Fast Times, a sharp, trendy business publication. The article stated that in the United States the amount of money we spend on garbage receptacles each year exceeds the Gross National Product of more than half of the world’s nations. If we spend that much on trash bags and cans, how much more do we spend on refuse? How much excess do we each have cluttering our garages and basements? As we accumulate and consume, how often do we pause to think about the good that can be done with our resources to aid the needy? Do we give tzedakah perfunctorily, or do we consider it a sacred obligation?

I was enormously moved over two decades ago, and still am to this day, by the story of Malden Mills; a textile factory owned by Aaron Feurenstein an orthodox Jew. On Dec. 11, 1999 a fire destroyed a third of the factory in Malden, Massachusetts, and it was completely closed. Out of his own pocket Aaron Feurenstein paid three months salary and medical benefits until the factory was reopened. He was not required to, and there was obviously no financial advantage to him, in fact the factory almost went under. Eventually though, the factory reopened and everyone went back to work. When asked why he risked his own financial well being Feurenstein replied, “I only did what my religion teaches.”

This year as we prepare our hearts for the High Holy Days, can we truly say, “ I did what my religion teaches.” Can we declare, “… I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of your commandments”?

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