By Dr Yael Ziegler
This week’s parashah ends the “mitzvah section” of Sefer Devarim. In a speech which begins in Perek (chapter) 5 and continues uninterrupted until Perek 26, Moshe describes the “chukim u-mishpatim” (laws and statutes) which are incumbent upon each Jew. The speech ends in the first Perekof our parashah with two concluding mitzvot: bikkurim, entailing bringing of the first fruits of the Land of Israel to theBeit Ha-Mikdash, accompanied by a proclamation explaining the historical background for the obligation; and viduy ma’aser, the mitzvah to proclaim in the Beit Ha-Mikdash in both the fourth and seventh years of the ma’aser cycle that we have properly separated and given the ma’aserot (tithes) and terumot (priestly portions) from the year’s produce.
It is hard to miss the connection between these two final mitzvot. Both relate to the obligation of each individual Jew living in Israel with regard to the produce of the land. Both mitzvot involve speech. And perhaps most significantly, bothmitzvot present a reciprocal, ongoing relationship between God and His nation once they arrive in the Land of Israel.
This reciprocity is indicated in several ways. The mitzvah of bikkurim contains six instances of the word “ba,” meaning either to come or to bring. The first meaning, to come, is used three times in this section (26: 1, 3, 9) in reference to Am Yisrael’s entrance into the Land of Israel. It is then used three times in reference to Am Yisrael’s reciprocal responsibility to give back to God because of his largesse in giving them this Land. Once, the word appears meaning to come to the Kohen to bring him the first fruits of the Land (26:3).
The second meaning, to bring, is employed twice (26:2, 10) to indicate Am Yisrael’s bringing the gift of the first fruits in acknowledgment of God’s great munificence. Taken together, these two separate usages of the word “ba” form the basis of the relationship between God and His nation in the Land: God brought the Jewish nation out of slavery and subsequently bestowed upon the nation a good and plentiful Land. In return, and in continuous acknowledgement of God’s kindness, each individual Jew brings the first fruits of this land every year to the Beit Ha-Mikdash accompanied by a declaration of his gratitude towards God.
A second literary indication of the reciprocity inherent in this section may be perceived in the unusual employment of the word “natan” in this section. Given the nature of the mitzvah of bikkurim, it would be logical to assume that this word is used to describe the manner in which Am Yisrael donates the first fruits to the Beit Ha-Mikdash. Interestingly, the word “natan” is never utilized in this manner. Instead, the word appears six times (26:1, 2, 3, 9, 10, 11) in describing God’s giving the Land of Israel to Am Yisrael. This phenomenon underscores the very essence of the idea of giving the first fruits: We must give the first fruits to Hashem because He gave us the Land. The principle of reciprocity underlies this entire mitzvah.
The mitzvah of viduy ma’aser likewise contains a striking reciprocity. While the essence of the mitzvah involves a firm proclamation pertaining to one’s proper fulfillment of the obligations with respect to terumah and ma’aser, the proclamation concludes with a bold appeal to God.
Look down from Your dwelling place of holiness, from the heavens, and bless your nation, Israel, and the Land which you have given us as you promised our fathers: A Land flowing with milk and honey.
This proclamation resounds with reciprocity, indicating that the relationship between God and his people is mutual and contains mutual obligations, benefits and commitments.
On this note, we arrive at the summation of the entire mitzvah section (Devarim 26:17-18):
You have elevated (“he’emarta”) God today to be for you as a God and to walk in His path and toguard His statues and commandments and laws and to listen to His voice. And God has elevated you (“he-emirkha”) today to be for Him a chosen nation, as he had spoken to you, and to guard His commandments.
Our relationship with God in the Land of Israel is, in fact, reciprocal. Hashem’s original gift of the Land, alongside His continuous blessing of its produce, is matched by our ongoing attempt to respond to God’s gift by reciprocal gestures. This is ultimately an indication of the essence of the relationship in which we elevate God by functioning as the guardians of His commandments, as He elevates us by giving us those very commandments to perform. Thus, a mutual relationship is formed, based on mutual commitment and responsibilities to one another.
As we contemplate this parashah during this period of Elul, a period of “Ani le-Dodi ve-Dodi li,” we focus upon the reciprocal commitment inherent in the relationship between ourselves and Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu in the hope that it will strengthen our love and appreciation for all of God’s kindnesses toward us, and cement our commitment to serving Him.
Originally appeared on the Midreshet Moriah website