This week’s parasha, Ki Tavo, explains the laws of bringing first fruits to the Temple. “Then you will take from the first of every fruit of the earth that you brought forth from your land which Hashem your God gives to you; then you shall place it in the basket and go to the place that Hashem your God will choose for God’s name to reside there,” (Deuteronomy 26:2). The basket and the fruits are taken by a cohen and placed in front of the altar. The midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, the Sifrei (parashat Ki Tavo, no. 300), reports that rich people would bring their first fruits in gold or silver vases, while the poor would bring them in wicker baskets. It also reports that the baskets themselves were given to the priests along with the fruit, “in order to increase gifts to the priests.” This implies that, unlike the baskets, the vases brought by the rich were returned. Rabbi Ovadiah from Bartenura (15-16th Century Italy) comments that this supports the folk saying that, “Poverty follows the poor.” The rich get to show off without losing anything, and the poor look bad and lose out financially. The statement of the midrash is also nonsensical. If the Torah really wanted to increase the gifts given to to the priests, it would direct them to keep the gold and silver vases brought by the rich.
Allowing the rich to be financially ostentatious around first fruits stands in contrast to the Rabbinic approach to food brought to houses of mourning. The Talmud teaches (Mo’ed Katan 27a) that, originally, people would bring food to a house of mourning differently depending on their wealth: the rich in gold and silver vases, and the poor in wicker baskets. However, this embarrassed the poor; for the sake of their honor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should bring food to a house of mourning in wicker baskets. That is, in order to protect the dignity of the poor, the Rabbis decreed that everyone should act like a poor person when bringing food to a house of mourning. Rabbi Menachem Meiri (13-14th Century Catalonia) explains that a person is constantly required to examine their actions to ensure they do not embarrass the poor. Further, a rich person should make themself equal to the poor in order to not cause shame.
The tension between laws around bringing first fruits to the Temple and bringing food to mourners leads many commentators to attempt a resolution. In my humble opinion, a resolution may be found in a different version of the midrash from Sifrei, brought by the Vilna Gaon (Eliyah ben Shlomo, 18th Century Lithuania). Instead of ending the midrash with, “in order to increase gifts to the priests”, his version ends, “in order to give merit to the poor.” The Torah Temimah (Barukh HaLevi Epstein, 19-20th Centuries Lithuania) suggests that the reason the poor give their baskets to the priests is because they actually made the baskets out of the first fruits, so the baskets themselves are due to the priests as well. This makes the baskets both a merit to the poor and a true gift to the priests. Perhaps the rich also desired to give their baskets to the priests. But the priests have no interest in a gift that was merely a purchase, made with the money one happens to have. While that may seem like a beautification of serving God, just like a present wrapped in beautiful wrapping paper that came from the store, it is too easy. The rich might have nicer fruit to bring to the Temple than the poor, but they merely wrap it in what their money can buy; and money, to them, is easily disposable. However, the poor person, whose fruit is likely inferior to the rich person’s, uses their own hand and effort to beautify God’s gifts. They may not have anything great to offer, but they make it into something great. That is, their own poverty gives them motivation to create something truly worthy of a gift to the priests. This is why the priests only take the baskets from the poor, and this is why this practice gives merit to the priests.
My explanation does not immediately solve the initial problem. If delivering the first fruits in hand-made baskets is more meritorious, then the rich should also bring first fruits in hand-made baskets, just like when they bring food to mourners. Second, if bringing handmade baskets is more meritorious when bringing first fruits, why would it suddenly become more embarrassing for the poor when they bring food to mourners?
In the case of the Temple, the two methods of bringing first fruits - in precious vases or in wicker baskets - are empowering to a person’s station in life. This is strengthened by the statement made when bringing the first fruits. “My father was a wandering Aramean; then he descended to Egypt in small numbers, but he became there a great nation, strong and numerous,” (Deuteronomy 26:5). The rich and the poor have a common story, a story of both poverty and wealth. The great ancestors of the Israelites went through periods of each. Therefore, both being rich and being poor have an anchor in our heritage; neither is a position that should bring shame. In the current time, when they are giving their first fruits to their Temple, they are permitted to do so in a way that gives them pride in their place in life - for the rich, using their wealth for beauty, and for the poor, using their work for beauty.
However, the case of death and mourning is different. I have heard people discuss how equalizing death is. But the Talmud relates that before the Rabbis made decrees to equalize how the dead and their mourners were treated, it was anything but equalizing. The reason we bury bodies in closed caskets is because poor people who died tended to look famished, while rich people looked well cared-for (Mo’ed Katan 27b). The size of the crowd at a funeral or the number of eulogies were often related to a person’s fame or wealth. Funerals and mourning created an inequality of pride, which necessitated Rabbinic interference to equalize how people acted.
We need to ask ourselves about whether the institutions we build and activities we hold are more like bringing first fruits to the Temple or more like bringing food to mourners. Do they create an environment where everyone can be proud of their station in life, or an environment which gives pride to some at the expense of others? If we can build the former, we are doing well. But when we fail to do so, we might wish to take lesson from the Rabbis. In such cases, those who have power and wealth should take heed of the Meiri’s injunction: they should humble themselves, ensuring no one is ashamed due to lack of wealth or power. May we merit to build a world where all of our spaces are like the Temple at the time when first fruits were brought. Then we can fulfill the vision of Rabbi Akiva, who sees everyone, even the poor of Israel, as equally deserving of pride - as befits the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
This week’s parasha, Shof’tim, teaches us the laws about witnesses who conspire to testify falsely against a defendant. “You shall do to him as he conspired to do to his fellow,” the Text instructs (Deuteronomy 19:19). The Rabbis read this in an incredibly literal manner, summarized by Rashi as follows: “As he conspired - and not as he did. From here they said, if he [the accused] is executed, they [the witnesses] are not executed.” That is, if the conspiring witnesses are successful in convincing the court to falsely punish a defendant, they themselves are not punished, even though their testimony was false. They are only punished if they are caught before the punishment of the defendant is completed. Here, the Rabbis actually limitthe window for catching conspiring witnesses to between the time of the guilty verdict and the time when the punishment is executed. If the witnesses are found to have conspired falsely, but outside of that time, they cannot be tried and punished for it. This means that if the conspiring witnesses fully succeed in their plan to have the defendant punished - including via capital punishment - they are rewarded with immunity.
Traditional commentaries are flabbergasted by this and come up with a number of justifications. Nachmanides (13th Century Spain) suggests that while the witnesses may indeed have testified falsely, the fact that God allowed the accused to be executed must mean that the accused was actually guilty. The witnesses lied, but the punishment was warranted. I find this explanation incredibly difficult to accept, given how easily it can justify any kind of unfair suffering and death. People use such excuses to justify all sorts of personal and global tragedies. This includes Jewish sources that attempt to justify acts of evil by claiming that, while the perpetrators were horrible people, the fact that God still allowed the victims to die is proof that they deserved it. Such rhetoric tends to cause pain to those who loved the deceased more than it helps anyone relate to God.
Equally difficult for me to accept is the explanation of the Kesef Mishnah (Yosef Karo, 16th Century Turkey and Israel). He explains that conspiring witnesses who are successful in having the accused executed have committed such a heinous crime, death at the hands of people is too good for them. Since, in our tradition, punishment by the court atones for a person’s sins, we do not want these witnesses to gain atonement. Therefore, we leave their punishment in the hands of Heaven. This is unsatisfying to me. It calls into question whether we need courts in the first place, and lets us solely trust God to take care of the world’s evils. Considering that another commandment in this week’s parasha instructs us to set up a court system (Deuteronomy 16:18), this explanation flies in the face of the Torah’s own theology.
Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (15th Century Italy) brings a third explanation that, unsurprisingly, I also find difficult. However, I think it does explain the thinking behind the Rabbinic interpretation of conspiring witnesses, and I find that it makes Nachmanides’ and Yosef Karo’s commentaries more palatable. Rabbi Ovadiah says that, if the accused is executed and the false witnesses are executed, there would be no end to the matter. It takes two additional witnesses to condemn witnesses who have falsely conspired. If we executed the conspiring witnesses, their families would bring other witnesses to testify against the witnesses who testified against them, claiming that the second set of witnesses were actually the ones conspiring. This will continue with no end. While Rabbi Ovadiah does not say this directly, I think he means that to say that, in order to limit unending feuds of testimony, each court case gets a maximum of one punishment per case. The system is unfair, but that is the limitation of a human system. We try for maximum fairness, but at the end of the day, we have to accept the system’s limitation rather than leave an unending trail of bodies. Fairness should be the goal in solving disputes, but fairness is also an asymptote we can never reach. The Torah’s court system certainly sees fairness as a goal. It explains that conspiring witnesses are punished so harshly in order to prevent others from testifying falsely (Deuteronomy 19:20). But as much as we may strive for fairness, we need to ensure that the quest to get there does not leave too much damage in its wake. Sometimes, no matter how frustrating, it is better to have a limited system than one which becomes an arm for ongoing personal feuds.
The idea which underlies Rabbi Ovadia’s explanation also helps to explain Nachmanides and Yosef Karo. Both of them create stories that make an unfair part of our legal system more palatable by trusting that, at some point, God will step in. They accept that human legal systems cannot be truly fair. Whether or not God does act, they still both recognize that human systems on their own are limited - and that fairness should not come at the expense of considerable damage.
While Jewish religious courts no longer have the ability to judge cases outside of monetary and religious status disputes, the principles here apply to person-to-person interactions as well. We should strive for fairness in life, and we should not allow people to report falsely about others. However, our determination for fairness must not come at the expense of an unending cycle of pain. Life is occasionally unfair; as difficult as it may be, sometimes our best bet is to move on. As the High Holidays approach and people who wronged us in the last year show remorse, we should all keep in mind that the goal of the season is not to right wrongs, but to repair relationships. For the person who makes t’shuva, this means laboring to fix those wrongs that they committed. But for those who have been wronged, that can mean accepting that while some things cannot be fixed, forgiveness is better than an unending grudge or quarrel. And even if our wrongs are not righted - even if, in the end, those who hurt us get away with nothing but an apology - we must sometimes accept imperfect justice. Of course, the Torah teaches that there should still be consequences for people who act inappropriately. When possible, such people should attempt to right their wrongs, even when their wrongs are so grievous they cannot be righted. However, the Rabbis understood that perfect fairness is sometimes not worth the human cost. Hopefully, even as we strive for fairness in our courts, communities, and relationships, we can understand this too.
Shabbat Shalom - שבת שלום
My Grandfather did not smoke. When he served in the US Army during World War II, this had the potential to isolate him socially. However, instead of isolating him, it became his social outlet. He would exchange his cigarette rations with other soldiers for more food. Rather than refrain from camaraderie with those whose views on smoking differed from his, he used those differences to create social bonds. (Actually, he exchanged the cigs for chocolate!)
This week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, forbids Jews from eating certain types of meat (such as pig), as well as from mixing meat and milk (Deuteronomy 14:1-21). Food practices create identity and friendship--sharing a meal is a great act of social exchange. We see this numerous times in our tradition. The Mishna (Chullin 8:1) teaches that two lodgers--one eating meat and one eating cheese--may eat at the same table, even though we are forbidden to mix the two foods. The Rambam explains that this only applies if they are strangers, since they are less likely than friends to share food. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 31b) bans non-Jewish beer because of “marriage,” likely meaning, more broadly, social exchange. Here, Jewish law affirms that the exchange of food is an act of friendship. Prohibiting Jews from eating foods common in non-Jewish spaces appears to discourage intense social bonds between Jews and non-Jews.
There are two places in the Torah which list the animal species that Jews are not supposed to eat. One is in this week’s parasha, and one is in parashat Sh’mini in Vayikra. Both lists are connected to our holiness as a nation (Leviticus 11:45, Deuteronomy 14:2). However, the list in Sh’mini is also connected to God raising (מעלה) us out of Egypt, while in our parasha, it is connected to our being a treasured nation from amongst all the nations.
The language of the Torah in Sh’mini is unusual and therefore noteworthy. Usually, the Torah says that God took us out of Egypt - הוצאתי or המוציא. There, it says God raised us out of Egypt - מעלה. The Talmud in Bava Metziah (61b) notices this and explains that had God only taken us out for the sake of not eating certain creatures, and insects in particular, it would have been a sufficient reason. I think this means that a single food prohibition would have been sufficient to distinguish us from the Egyptians--to make us a separate nation.
But the set of food laws in our parasha ends differently. After listing forbidden animals, we are taught not to eat animals who die a natural death; instead, we should economically exchange them with non-Jews (Deuteronomy 14:21). The Torah gives us two choices. Either we should give them to the non-Jew living amongst us (the ger), presumably as gifts, or we should sell them to non-Jews living apart from us. Here, while dietary laws distinguish us from others, they also allow--and, in fact, encourage--intercultural interaction and exchange. They continue to set us apart as a nation, but they also create camaraderie with others. This might be why, in this week’s parasha, the Torah compares us to all the nations, not just the Egyptians. In Leviticus, soon after becoming a free and separate nation, we needed to define ourselves apart from the Egyptians specifically. Now, as a developed nation soon to be in our own land, we need to maintain our uniqueness; but unique does not mean isolated. We should be distinct from all the nations, but involved with them at the same time. This should be a goal of our observance of dietary restrictions and, likely, many other areas of Jewish law: figuring out how we can use those restrictions to simultaneously set us apart and still create cultural exchange. My Grandfather--of blessed memory--kept his differences regarding smoking, but used those differences to be a part of a larger group. In the same way, we should allow our dietary laws to establish our uniqueness while also motivating us to form connections outside of our community. May we all merit to maintain our distinctions--and to create friendships and relationships beyond them.
Shabbat Shalom שבת שלום
Reb Joel Goldstein
Getting credit for work can be important, contentious, humbling, and telling about the nature of the work itself. It is important because people should be recognized for their time, efforts, and initiatives. It is sometimes contentious because work often involves multiple people, and choosing to give credit to only some, or even sharing credit can sometimes diminish the effort by all involved. It is potentially humbling because lack of credit, or muted credit, can remind us that the work we did was actually quite ordinary and any number of people could have performed it. It tells us about the nature of the work itself, in that choosing how people are credited often tells which part of the work is most important. Sports provide a good example of this. In baseball, a hitter who moves a runner from first to third gets less credit than the batter who moves the runner home, even if the former contributed more overall bases. In basketball, a brilliant pass through a tight defense to a wide open player standing under the basket merely gets an assist. The player who makes the easy basket is credited with the actual points.
This week’s parasha, Eikev, teaches, “You shall observe all of themitzvah that I command you today, so that you may live, multiply, arrive, and inherit the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers,” (Deuteronomy 8:1). Reading the phrase, “all of themitzvah,” carefully, the midrash Tanchuma concludes that only one who completes a mitzvah receives the credit. It does not read “all of the mitzvah” to mean that performing the mitzvah from start to finish is necessary for credit. Rather, credit goes for merely completing themitzvah. Its proof is the story of Moses taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Joseph died in Egypt and adjured the Israelites to take his bones out of Egypt when, in the future, God would lead the people out of the Egypt. During the Exodus, the Torah specifically states that Moses took Joseph’s bones out of Egypt (Exodus 13:19). However, since Moses never enters the land of Israel, the completion of the task falls to others. When the book of Joshua describes the burial of Joseph’s bones, it credits all of the Israelites with taking the bones from Egypt and burying them in the land of Israel. Even though Moses alone took the bones, since he did not complete the task, he gets no credit in the end. This is additionally strange because Joseph only asked to have his bones removed from Egypt, not necessarily to have them buried in the land. Moses could have buried Joseph in the desert and received full credit. However, he passes the task on to others, allowing Joseph the honor of a burial in the land of his forefathers. According to this midrash, when deciding where to give credit for a task, one should look to those who completed it and not those who began it.
Our tradition also includes a contrasting midrash to the Tanchuma. Psalm 30, which we say at the beginning of P’sukei D’zimra, begins, “A Psalm, a song for the dedication of the Temple, of David” (Psalms 30:1). Mekhilta D’Rebbi Yishmael (another, earlier collection ofmidrash) notes that this Psalm ought to be “of Solomon,” not “of David,” since Solomon dedicated the Temple. The Midrash resolves this by suggesting that since David gave so much of himself towards the building of the Temple, it was dedicated in his name, not Solomon’s. So too, any time a person gives much of themselves towards a task, that person is credited for it, even if someone else completes the task. From the perspective of this midrash, we should honor the effort over the completion.
Rabbi Yiztchok Zilberstein (may he live for many more good years) suggests a solution to the competing midrashim (Chashukei ChemedRosh Hashana 11a noted 30). In Moses’ taking Joseph’s bones out of Egypt, Moses was a replaceable person. Had Moses not taken the bones, someone else would have. Taking the bones was a routine play. However, if not for the sheer will of David in beginning the project of building the Temple, it would never have been built. For an exceptional move like David’s, credit is due, even if he did not see the task to completion. Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv (20th Century Israel) makes a similar suggestion (Notes of the GRI”SH to Sotah 13b), based on the world of matchmakers. He deals with a case where a successful match is made through the work of two matchmakers. Rabbi Elyashiv explains that if the efforts of the first permit the second to be successful, the first receives ⅓ of the reward (presumably monetary, not just in Heaven). Otherwise, the credit is given entirely to the second matchmaker, and the first receives nothing.
It is important to note the conduct of both Moses and David. Moses takes up a task that anyone can do. In fact, Moses could have strictly completed the task by burying Joseph in the desert - a task any Israelite could have started and completed. Yet Moses humbles himself to begin the task and shows even more humility by not completing the task. Instead, he gives up credit and also gives greater honor to Joseph by allowing others to complete the burial in the land of Israel. He displays the humility for which the Torah describes him as, “More humble than any [other] person” (Numbers 12:3). David gives his heart and soul to a task, even though he risks never seeing it through. He displays incredible faith and dedication, even though, in his lifetime, his efforts will fail. Moses and David should both be models for us in our own lives. May we all find the humility to begin and attempt to complete the mundane tasks in life, as Moses did. May we all be willing to give up credit to see a task completed with more honor than we ourselves are capable of giving it. May we all be like David, willing to pour our souls into projects which may not be completed in our lifetimes and from whose success we will never truly reap the benefits. Finally, may we always give proper credit where it is due.
Reb Joel Goldstein