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"Grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham, as you swore to our forefathers from ancient times."(Micha 7:20)
In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the seven-year Shmitah cycle, Jews living in Israel were commanded to separate a tenth of their crops and bring them to Jerusalem to eat (ma'aser sheni). In the third and six years of the cycle, that tenth was given to the poor as ma'aser ani.
At first glance, it would seem that the order of ma'aser sheni and ma'aser ani should have been reversed. Why were the landowners not required to first share with the poor and only subsequently to enjoy their produce in Jerusalem. In other words, why was ma'aser ani not given at the beginning of the three-year cycle, and only then ma'aser sheni?
Maimonides (Gifts to the Poor 10:2) writes that one must give tzedakah with a joyous countenance, and that giving with a disgruntled mien negates the mitzvah. Thus we see that the attitude with which one gives tzedakah is intrinsic to the mitzvah itself.
The prophet Michah (5:17) defines that which God wants from us as "to do justice, love chesed (kindness), and walk modestly with God." And in the concluding blessing of the Amidah we thank God for giving us, "through the light of His countenance a Torah of life and a love of chesed." It is not enough to do chesed. One must love chesed.
More than any other positive mitzvah, writes Maimonides, tzedakah is a sign of the essence of a Jew. It is the very fiber of Jewish existence and the source of our future redemption. Similarly, a good heart, which is the basis of all good character traits (Avot 2:13), refers to an attitude which fosters chesed.
The goal of our striving in this world is the perfection of our souls. The mitzvot are the means to achieving this goal. There are two mitzvot which enable us to emulate God as He relates to us. One is Torah study. Through the study of Torah we attach ourselves to God's mind, as it were, as He created the world.
The second is chesed. The basis of all existence is God's desire to do chesed to His creation. Hence, when we do acts of chesed with a strong desire, we follow in God's footsteps.
Abraham discovered God through the characteristic of chesed of recognizing the chesed inherent in the creation. He so longed to perform acts of chesed, that even when he sat in great agony after his own brit milah, he suffered when no guests appeared. Our mother Rivka, too, was distinguished by her love of chesed. It was for that quality alone that Eliezer tested her.
We are now prepared to understand the order of ma'aser sheni and ma'aser ani. By commanding us to bring one-tenth of our crops to Jerusalem to rejoice there, God taught us two vital lessons. The first is that our material possessions are a present from God and He can dictate how we use that material bounty. The second is that using material wealth in the way prescribed by God generates feelings of joy and sanctity.
Once we have internalized these lessons in the first two years of the cycle, we can offer that bounty to the poor in the third year – not perfunctorily, but with a true love of chesed.
The letters of Elul hint to the verse, "I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me," signifying our intensified relationship with God leading up to the High Holidays. To achieve this we must condition ourselves not only to do chesed, but to love it.