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D'var Torah - Becca Farber

Becca (Cohort 10) is starting her third year of teaching in the upper school at Tarbut v'Torah, in Orange County, CA.

Twelve years ago I shuddered at the thought of standing on the bimah and delivering an address on Parashat Ki Tavo to two hundred and fifty people about a topic with which they were likely already familiar. Who was I, a pint-sized child, to impart my Torah to a wise and weathered population?

Little did I know that Ki Tavo, this week’s parashah, contained within it the answer to my concerns. In Deuteronomy 26:12, the Israelite farmers are instructed to offer the tithes of their produce in the third year. These offerings are to be distributed to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. This tithe is known as ma’aser ani, the tithe for the poor.

Our charge comes as the Israelites enter into the land of their inheritance. They have endured generations of slavery, decades of wandering, and weeks of battle and are finally settling in the Promised Land. Their first obligation is to bring God the first of all the fruits of the ground (Deuteronomy 26:2). The text then tells us that the Israelites will rejoice in their harvests. Their very next obligation is to begin sharing those fruits with the less fortunate.

A regular giving routine, regardless of status and devoid of context, sends a message to the community that everyone has something to offer. It creates a culture where giving is the norm and to not give is taboo. This is a deeply empowering lesson. No matter how insignificant we may feel, even as an insecure Bat Mitzvah like myself, we are consistently raised to the level of giver.

Another appearance of a similar series of events can be found in Deuteronomy 14. First, the Israelites are told to bring ma'aser sheni, the second tithe, to Jerusalem, and eat it so that they remember to fear God (Deuteronomy 14:23). Next, the Israelites are told that they will rejoice in their produce. Just as in our parashah, their very next obligation is to share those fruits with the less fortunate (Deuteronomy 14:28). This sequence of remember God, rejoice, and give is found in a similar context to ours. It occurs immediately after Moshe reminds the Israelites that they are a holy nation to God (Deuteronomy 14:2).

In contrast to feelings of triviality, both of these commandments to give to the less fortunate come at a time when the Israelites are riding a high. They have just been told that they are the heirs to an esteemed position, that they are entitled to its benefits, and that they deserve no less. It is no surprise that not once but twice are our egos – and pockets – reminded that it is all who are deserving, and that it is our responsibility to share the wealth.

As a teacher I need to remind myself that every student in the classroom merits my attention. But I also must remind myself that the giving hand reaches the other way as well. Those lessons must include room for the kernels of insight the students choose to reveal to me too.

What a crucial message to carry into the Yamim Nora’im. We exhaust our energies, busily recalling our personal imperfections and shortcomings. In the midst of such self-centered exercises, at times when our egos are either low or high, we must remember our charge to give.